Recently, I celebrated another year marked on the calendar of my life. I am also considering how best to focus my energy and enlighten my soul, so I look back on my previous accomplishments and peer ahead into exciting new projects.
In our vastly changing world, we still follow an ancient path, searching for God, our proper place in family and society, and the meaning of our lives. Today, we live in a global reality little imagined in the land of Ur, though—made in the image of God—our souls have always held limitless possibilities.
In my OldEarth Encounter series, our world is viewed from a close-up Earth-bound, historical perspective but also from a distant, alien viewpoint. In the truest meaning of “Catholic,” the stories revolve around universal themes.
Oldearth ARAM Encounter—Humanity’s search for the one true God.
OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Conflict between humanity’s need for God and our desire to be god.
OldEarth Neb Encounter—The price of chosen evil.
OldEarth Georgios Encounter—God as Father and Son and our personal reflection of those roles.
OldEarth Melchior Encounter—Marriage, parenthood, and the meaning of our Christian identity.
The first three books are currently available on Amazon, and the last two are near completion and will be available soon.
For the rest of April, I will take a break from creating new stories, My Road Goes Ever On reflections, and poems. I’ll start up again sometime in May. In the mean time, I am completing the work on the last two OldEarth books, reading my posts aloud for those who’d like to listen, (Just hit the Listen on Spotify button) and organizing my newest work:
My Road Goes Ever On II
Encounter—Science Fiction Short Stories II
It Might Have Been Short Stories II
I am also hoping to publish a collection of my poems at some point. Still have to come up with a name…
May our lives be blessed with God’s grace each day.
Zuri, wearing a course tunic over the simplest remnant of his armor paced along a worn path, the sun setting behind a distant, emerald-green hill.
With a flash, Teal appeared before him in a peasant’s outfit.
“There you are. I was afraid you’d have to wait till morning to see.”
Smirking, Teal bowed low. “Hello, Zuri. So glad we meet again.”
“None of that, now. We haven’t time. I want you to see this family! They’re magnificent and, to top it off, there’s been a murder. Some folks are running about insisting that Melchior’s son did it, but I hardly think so. Not the warrior type, if you know what I mean. I’m thinking it was the husband—though I have no—”
Teal faltered, his shape growing hazy. “By the Divide, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Zuri grabbed Teal’s arm and tugged him down the path. When they rounded a bend, a cottage stood before them, resplendent in evening hues.
“That’s Melchior’s place. He has a bunch of children, servants, and even a slave or two, yet he manages to keep his property intact and his head attached. In these parts, that’s something to be proud of.” He squinted in the failing light. “You all right? You look a bit…fuzzy.”
Teal lifted his hand and nodded. “Just been busy.”
Zuri glanced around. “Where’s Cerulean?”
“He’s taking care of Sterling. With strict orders to hurry him along, with or without Mauve.”
Teal rolled his shoulders. “His newest obsession.”
“You can say—”
A Bhuaci chime sounded.
Zuri tapped his chest and a holographic image of a Cresta with stringy yellow cilia drizzling from his head and dressed in a dark green bio-suit with matching boots appeared before them.
“Tarragon reporting for duty.”
Leaning toward Teal, Zuri dropped his voice low. “Ark’s son. Remember the pod…”
Teal nodded. He focused his gaze on the Cresta. “Thank you for being so prompt. But I thought we were going to meet here at—” He glanced at Zuri.
Tarragon waved a tentacle. “I wanted assure myself that someone would be there to greet me. I am still on board my ship, but I’ll shuttle down shortly.” He eyed Zuri. “If you’ll confirm the coordinates?”
Suppressing annoyance, Zuri pulled a datapad from his sleeve and tapped in the information. “Just be sure to stay out of sight. Your aircraft had better be native sensitive.”
“Of course. The Cresta are experts of disguise.”
Zuri chuckled. “Ark was anything but!” Realizing his mistake, a flush warmed his cheeks. “Sorry. No disrespect. I greatly valued Ark.”
Tarragon shrugged. “I hardly knew him.” With a smart salute, he signed off. The hologram evaporated.
Zuri slapped his face. “Oh, that went well, don’t you think?”
Looking haggard, Teal sighed. “He’s a hard one to figure. I’ve asked about him through the years, but he never responded, and Ark had little to offer. I thought he’d be at Ark’s passing-on ceremony, but he never showed. His mother did, though. Gave me an earful. More than I really wanted to know about Cresta—”
The pounding of horses’ hooves sent Zuri scurrying to a hedge row.
Teal blinked away and then reappeared at his side. “We’d better move further off. We don’t want Tarragon showing up in the middle of a family dispute.”
“Going to be a blinking challenge to train someone new. And now we have Sterling and Mauve to deal with.”
Teal shrugged. “It could be worse. We could have the Mystery Race on our heels. At least we’re safe there.”
Zuri glanced at the starry sky, a sinking sensation enveloped him.
Kiara loved the sound of the wind rushing through the woodland. Earthy and rustic, it spoke of invisible worlds and steadfast powers beyond human control. Blades of spring grass poked up from last winter’s mulch, and buds swelled in the promise of better things to come. She sighed. If only…
The sun had crested over an hour ago, and she must return to her apartment, then off to her shrill, insistent work place, always maintaining a calm, professional demeanor.
A redbird alighted on a fence post, chirping an attractive, lilting tune. Why can’t I be a bird?
Her sister’s voice. Myra always knew where to look.
Kiara stepped from the shadows into the field. “Yes?”
“There you are!” Myra jogged forward. “Let’s go to the lake. Mother left a cold supper in the kitchen, and the boys won’t be back for another couple of hours.”
A thrill ignited Kiara’s imagination. “You think we could?” Doubt quickly cooled the spark to mere ash. “But I should prepare for—”
“Another workday?” Myra gripped her sister’s arm and tugged. “You’re always working, and when you die, your spirit will float about this beautiful planet, wondering why you ever lived.”
Aching pressure surged against an inner wall, splashing over the ramparts. Tears filled Kiara’s eyes.
The two women stood on the rocky shore, surrounded by cliffs held together by a phalanx of trees, ripples scurrying across the blue-green water.
A tall, lean man strolled toward them, waves splashing his toes.
Shock filled Kiara as she stared wide-eyed. “What’s Jagan doing here?”
Myra kept her eyes glued to the horizon. “Does he have to have a reason?”
Images of the muddy water, floating debris, homes half-submerged in the flooded plain filled her mind. So many had lost loved ones in the disaster. The funerals never seemed to end. Then they did, and everyone returned to work and normal lives.
Normal? What does that mean? “I thought he moved up north, away from—”
Myra shot her a glance. “He did. But now he’s back.”
“He doesn’t have family here. Not anymore.”
Scuffing a bare toe against a smooth rock, Myra rubbed a fish-shaped pendant hanging around her neck. “Doesn’t he?”
With a snort, Kiara tossed her head.
Jagan stopped and nodded. His eyes reflected grief mingled with endurance. “I was down the shore and saw you; hope I’m not interrupting.”
Myra hugged her sister’s arm. “Of course not. Mother has made enough supper for a spring festival; come and join us. The boys would love to see you. They’ve been working on a kite.”
His gaze glancing off Kiara, Jagan waited.
Words tumbled from Kiara’s lips before she knew what she was about. “Certainly. Come and be welcome. I have to return to work so someone should enjoy—” What? Life? She blushed in confusion.
Ignoring the unfinished thought, Jagan fell in step between the two women as they headed back to a small blue Honda. “You’re still at the same place?”
Kiara nodded. “Same work. Same family. Same everything.”
Myra’s tiny head shake obliterated the lie. The tiny woman pulled out her keys and slid into the driver’s seat. “You two sit in back and don’t tell me how to drive.”
After supper, Jagan met Kiara in the kitchen as she wiped the wooden table free of spots and crumbs. He tugged a towel off the rack and started drying the dishes. “Keeping busy helps, doesn’t it?”
Her throat tightening, Kiara kept her gaze glued to the polished surface.
“I moved away. Thought I’d find peace if I didn’t have to run into a memory every time I turned around.”
The distant sound of rumbling thunder echoed off the hills. “But now you’ve returned. For good?”
He smiled and lifted the clean stack of plates onto the middle shelf. “For good? That’s funny. I hardly know.”
With a shrug, Kiara dismissed his honesty. “I like to keep busy. Productive.” She squeezed the sponge and laid it neatly on the soap dish. “Not a problem.”
Jagan leaned against the sink and nodded. “That’s good. I hated it when I couldn’t feel anything anymore. Just a vague unease, like something was supposed to be inside of me that wasn’t.”
The wind picked up, and branches swished against each other, groaning in stormy delight.
A shiver ran down Kiara’s arms. “I should’ve headed back to my apartment this afternoon, but I got caught up in the spring sunshine. And Myra and mom wanted…you know.” She sighed. “I’ll have to get up extra early tomorrow to make the drive if I want to get to work on time and do stuff.”
With a playful twinkle, Jagan twitched the towel at Kiara. “Love doing stuff, do ya?”
Laughter bubbled inside Kiara. “You betcha! The more stuff the better! I’m one of the best stuffers—” Suddenly, as if she had been stripped of every article of clothing like in a horrible nightmare, left without a single defense, choking tears killed all joy.
Jagan didn’t ask. He simply took her in his arms and held her. Softly, without possession, advice, or comment.
Her tears stained his brown shirt, but she couldn’t stop them. She hung on and let the tears do their work. After a deep calming breath, she pulled away. “I still have to go tomorrow.”
He nodded. “And you’ll manage another productive day.”
“I will.” She looked up and met his eyes. “And you?”
“I’m home now. Grief can find me whether I work or play.”
Rain pounded the roof and beaded the window. A breeze sashayed into the kitchen.
“I wish I were a bird…”
Jagan took her hand, led her to the doorway, and flung open the door. Messy drops drizzled and splattered.
He pointed to the treetops where a nest swayed in the wind.
Queasiness unsettled Kiara’s balance. “How do they stand it?”
He gripped her hand tighter. “It’s home.”
“The place where you face life’s storms.”
As the drops slowed, Kiara relaxed, peace enveloping her. Home isn’t a place. It’s a presence. For the first time in forever, her soul flew.
Trees, in their giantess of spirit, talk to me on a daily basis. Thank God, or I don’t know who I’d go to for advice.
It’s the end of a long day—a Monday to be exact—and as hectic, overflowing Mondays have the uncanny habit of following slow, afternoon-nap Sundays, I fight the desire to head out to the edge of my property and simply be with my dear friend. No words necessary. Oak always understands.
I wouldn’t have to go into the tedious details concerning the weird dream where I painted a dirty wall then promptly tossed a blanket over a messy box that really deserved to be cleaned out, but, in dream-world impossibility, the blanket would simply have to do.
No need to explain the emails. How does one respond to sincere attempts to communicate in a world where opinions rampage like charging horses in a medieval joust, and it’s frankly disloyal—perhaps even disingenuous—to cheer?
Gordian knot, you’re playing with me.
Today’s foraging through the shops demanded keen instinct—keep to the designated list despite the fact that items left over from the holidays were practically a steal. Who wants to steal holiday decorations when looking forward to spring? Yeah, sure, there’s always next year… But tonight’s dinner quandary demanded my attention more. Fruits and vegetables. A last stand between winter and spring festivities. That or admit that ol’ Oak and I have more in common than I’d like to admit in matters of girth.
Noon found me strolling. Oak greeted me, always the gentlefolk, waving last seasons crumpled brown leaves, rustling a soothing tune. I still had a story to write, online school plans to cajole, money matters with which to contend, and dinner to devise.
Oak didn’t mind a bit of it. The wind blew. Clouds scuttled. With plaintive meows, cats arched their back in invitation, and dogs raced like puppies. A red bird shot onto the woods, a blue bird flashed by, and an eagle soared. If I wasn’t one with nature, it wasn’t for Oak’s lack of trying. Steadfast par excellence.
Pasta with two kinds of toppings kept the kids’ bodies and souls in happy coexistence. Presently sage and citrus incense burn over the glowing heater while Henrietta hamster daintily chips away at her carrot. I am staring at dark windows, knowing full well that Oak is still and quiet this time of night. He doesn’t need to speak. He just needs to be.
Maple out my bedroom window wakes me each morning with waving branches, seasonally decorated. I’m waiting for the spring-fairies to visit. Any day now. Pines pierce the sky, tossing their still-green branches in see-what-I-still-have proud display. A forgotten nest sways, unbroken, a hopeful reminder of summer guests.
In a time-is-running-out reality dotted with doubt, my arboreal familiars offer more than words can say. They speak in rustles, rough texture, variegated colors, off-white tones, but most honestly in their very existence. To be is their way.
No proof. No judgment. No certitude or pride.
To have been created says all. Alive. Perhaps not always perfectly. Rot infests the best of us. But speak, they do well.
Advice is best offered after sampled, and so, I find it true.
Noman smoothed down his tunic as he paced before the wooden table laid with the evening meal of wine, boiled fish, nuts, olives, bread, honey, cheese, dates, and pomegranates.
Abbas was coming to see him.
He played the words over in his head. Abbas was coming… to see him… To see him…
The laughter of boys crashed against his ears. He stopped before the window of the Hospitia and peered at the bucolic scene.
Three boys chased each other across hard packed earth. Their clothes tattered, their feet bare, and their eyes bright.
A shout split the air, and the children scattered.
A gesturing heavyset man, flushed and furious, jerked forward. “Didn’t ya hear me! Get back to work, you fools, or I’ll cut your useless legs from under your bodies.”
An old man, dressed in a long white tunic with a fine robe draped over, stepped close upon the angry man’s heels. He raised his hand as he passed.
All bombastic bravado fled. The heavy man bowed low, scraping the ground in a servile fashion.
Unimpressed, the old man stopped and peered at the window.
Noman caught his breath.
Abbas had come. To see him.
Noman poured wine into an ornate cup and passed it across the table. The food sat untouched. Neither needed to eat but that had never stopped them before. He spread his hands wide, a genial host. “Please, enjoy.”
Abbas, ever the master of kindness, broke off a piece of fish, slipped it between his lips and chewed with a hum of pleasure. “Very nice.”
Pride fought gratitude in the playground of Normand’s mind. He smirked. “I picked it out myself. Best fish this side of the Divide, they say.”
Abbas choked and grabbed the goblet for a quick swallow. He wiped his lips with his sleeve, and leaned against the hard-baked wall, his penetrating gaze searching. “You know about The Evidence?”
Noman wasn’t going to play. “Evidence?” He smirked. “An attempt to make humans appear worthier than they are. A trick, really, to see how we’ll react.”
Abbas stroked his chin. “Is that all, you think?”
“I know so!” Frustration needled Noman like a thousand biting insects. “I told you. They are a mere plaything. A toy. He just wants to see how we’ll respond. If we throw ourselves at his mercy and beg for forgiveness—”
“We need forgiveness?”
“Of course not. But if we were fools, we might think so. Lesser beings are always ready to beg. It’s what they do. Humiliate themselves before greatness.”
Abbas sighed. “You’d certainly never do that.” He rose from the bench and strode to the window.
A little boy sat on the ground, playing with round stones. A sparrow landed and hopped nearby. The boy watched, then raised his hand, a stone poised. The bird pecked at the ground, unconcerned.
Noman stepped over and propped his arm against the wall, his gaze fixed on the opposite side of the room. “We know our true place in the universe.”
The boys’ gaze softened as he watched the bird, his brows knit together. Slowly, he lowered his arm and dropped the stone. With his other hand, he dug into a pocket.
Abbas sighed. “Do we?” He glanced aside. “Really?”
“Our power informs us.” Noman threw his arms wide. “I could remake this entire village into a treasure of pleasure—if I wanted.”
Abbas’ gaze returned to the scene.
The boy held out his hand, palm up. Breadcrumbs offered.
The wary sparrow hopped close and stopped. With a cock of the head, it eyed him.
Smiling, the boy tipped his hand and scattered the crumbs within easy reach. Eagerly, the bird snapped up the morsels.
Noman cocked his head and stared Abbas. “Excuse me?”
“I keep hearing the word in my mind—like a verse, a song.”
“Ah! Song—the Bauchi witch. She’s always playing mind games.”
Brooding irritation flooded Abbas’ eyes. “No, not that Song. A song. Music. Harmony and melody. Beauty in sound.”
Noman shrugged. “I’ve never understood the concept.” He peered out the window.
The boy grinned as the bird pecked the crumbs.
Annoyed, Noman shouted, “Go on, boy! You’ve no business here.”
Abbas sighed. He started for the door.
Jolted, Noman gripped his arm. “Where are going?”
“You may be right. Song may be exactly who I’m thinking of.”
“But what about me—about my mission?”
Abbas peered at Noman’s fingers gripping his tunic. “I say that you’ve underestimated The Event. There’s more to humanity than meets the eye.” He jerked free. “I take my leave of you now. But I suggest that you don’t do anything—you’ll regret.”
Cold seeped through Noman. Regret? Not possible. Chilling that Abbas could even suggest the word. He bowed and peered at the door.
Eoban stood on a hill outside the city walls and watched flames flicker from distant hearths. He rubbed his growling stomach.
With a smile plastered on his face, Obed jogged forward and glanced aside at Barak. “I spoke with a family at the bottom of the hill.” He pointed to a small assembly stationed around a stew pot that hung over a modest blaze. “I told them that we’re travelers in search of a lost clan member, and they’ve agreed to let us spend the night. They have plenty of stew, Eoban, and they’re willing to share with us.”
Shoving off from an ancient tree, Barak rubbed his hands together. “I could certainly use a home-cooked meal.” He started after Obed and called back. “Hurry up, Eoban. We’re not waiting for you.” He and Obed loped down the hill.
Eoban frowned and hesitated. His stomach rumbled again. He blew air between his lips and jogged forward.
As they assembled around the fire, everyone gave way so the three men could partake of the offered stew and fresh bread. Soon, a strong drink was passed around, and in little time, Eoban’s mood expanded. After eating and drinking his fill, he flopped on the ground and stretched out between Obed and Barak, who sat cross-legged.
Various community members sat on the ground or on benches drawn back from the fire. Muted conversations flowed in all directions.
Propping himself on one arm, Eoban’s only discomfort lay in questions nagging his mind. He licked his tingling lips and launched his words like rocks. “So, how is it that a people who cook so well also ravage and enslave others?”
Deafening silence filled the air. Faces froze and limbs stilled.
Obed whacked Eoban on the side and muttered. “You repay their hospitality with an insult?”
Barak jerked to his knees, scanning the crowd. He met an old man’s gaze. “I’m sorry for my rude friend. Clearly, Eoban’s had too much to drink. You see, we’ve been traveling, and he’s had many—”
Stumbling to his feet, Eoban waved his arms, cutting off Barak’s conciliatory speech. “I can’t stand brutality! That’s my grievance. It makes me sick. It should make you sick—but you’ve thrived.” He jutted his arm toward the main gate. “Your whole city—”
The old man rose steady and clear-eyed. “My name is Daniel, it means judge. I am the one who settles arguments in our community.” He stepped closer to Eoban and fixed his gaze. “You have judged us before knowing the truth.”
Moving off to the side and crossing his arms, Obed shook his head. “So often the case with him.”
Daniel stepped around Eoban, returning to the central fire. “Perhaps, it’s your heart that speaks and not your reason.”
A low murmur rumbled through the crowd.
Daniel stared at the flames. “Those who live outside the walls are not the same as those who live inside.” He exhaled a long breath. “We are not much better than slaves ourselves. Chains do not bind us, but we’re held captive nonetheless. Having no voice, we have no strength to change the laws or fight the armies that protect them.”
Barak nodded, his eyes downcast.
Obed glared at Eoban with a told-you-so look.
Eoban returned the glare, his voice rising. “You know the laws are wrong, yet you don’t fight them?”
A youth sprang up from the circle. “Knowing something is wrong doesn’t put a spear in your hand. They’d kill us—”
Disgust welled inside Eoban, and his words rose like a snarl. “So, not brutes but cowards, then?”
As if in slow motion, Obed marched forward, clenching his fist.
Before he realized what happened, jolting pain seared through Eoban’s head, and he felt himself spinning. Darkness swallowed him.
Barak sat before a waning fire in the early morning light, watching the last stars fade into the brightening sky. Obed slumbered at his right, and Eoban still lay sprawled on the ground where he fell.
After much grunting and groaning and several vain attempts to sit up, Eoban gave a mighty roar and rolled to his knees and then staggered to his feet. He peered around, rubbing his jaw. “I know what happened, so don’t pretend.”
Barak closed his eyes and dropped his head to his chest, smothering a groan.
“Try as you might, you can’t excuse him! Such behavior must be roundly condemned. I hope you did me justice and kept our clan’s reputation intact.”
Choking, Barak stared wide-eyed at Eoban.
Eoban leaned in, gazing into Barak’s eyes. “You and Obed did do me justice—didn’t you?”
After rising and stepping a safe distance away, Barak peered into Eoban’s bloodshot eyes. “It was Obed who knocked you out.”
“Obed?” Eoban smoothed his rough chin. “I’ll have a word—”
Frustration seizing him, Barak stomped close, gripped Eoban’s arm, and tugged him to the summit of the nearby hill.
The glorious white city spread before them, encircled by a wall with tall and short gates facing each direction. Guards marched along the wall, while merchants and villagers started their daily routines. Women opened shops, old men swept dirt from their steps, mothers bustled children to the well with empty jugs, and boys chased flocks into open fields.
Eoban peered at the view and then glanced aside. “What?”
Pointing to a temple roof rising high above the wall, Barak barely controlled his temper. “There! The inhabitants of this metropolis worship a figure that has a man’s head, the body of a great cat, and the wings of an eagle. It needs daily sacrifice to keep the city flourishing. Sound familiar?”
Eoban scowled. “Haruz must have studied here. But if Ishtar is in residence, I’m not sure we’ll ever get him away.”
Clapping his hands together in mute fury, Barak turned away. “Who accused our hosts of being cowards?”
“I’ve been talking in my sleep…?”
Scrambling footsteps turned their attention.
A twinkling smile in his eyes, Obed sauntered forward. “Have a good sleep, Eoban?” He winked at Barak.
Barak took a step backward.
Returning the smile, Eoban chuckled. “Oh, yes, slept like a baby. Blazing stars exploded in my head when I hit the hard ground—what more could a man ask?” Eoban clenched his fist. “If only you could share my joy.” He landed a heavy blow on Obed’s chin.
Obed spun backward and sprawled in the dust. He glared at Eoban, his eyes blazing.
Barak stepped over with a hand out, but Eoban blocked him and gripped Obed by the arm and hauled him to his feet. “Now, we’re even.”
After spitting on the ground, Obed rubbed his jaw, the fire in his eyes dying to embers. “Someone had to shut you up. Or do you think it’s generous to insult the people who feed you and treat you with kindness?”
“It was not their kindness I objected to but rather their weakness.”
Barak lifted his hands and stepped between the two men. “Enough!” He glanced from Eoban to Obed and then pointed to the city. “Or I’ll leave you two to kill each other while I go search the temple for Ishtar.”
With a snort and a dismissive wave, Obed surveyed the glinting white temple. “Ought to be interesting.”
Eoban scrambled down the hill. “Ishtar would end up in a place like that. Let’s go.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Try not to be too impressed, Obed. We can’t bring any of it home.”
With a storm cloud rising in his stomach, Barak followed the two men.
“It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” ~James Baldwin
Tobia leaned against a fallen log and closed his eyes. The hot sun sent beads of sweat dripping down his face. Images of the villagers he had met and the trades he had made brought a smile smuggling up from his middle. He pictured Obed’s surprised expression when he returned home with a bag stuffed with noteworthy goods.
Someone nudged his foot. He opened his eyes.
Vitus peered down at him, a sour expression making crow’s-feet at the corners of his eyes. “Where’s the bread?”
With a grunt, Tobia rose to his knees and fumbled through the smaller of the two bags at his side. He found a healthy chunk of bread and tossed it into Vitus’ hands. “Here. But eat slowly. We won’t get any more until we find the next village.”
Tearing into the loaf, Vitus sank to the ground and leaned against a tree trunk. He chewed noisily and wiped the crumbs from his face with the back of his hand.
Swallowing back disgust, Tobia plucked another piece from the bag and took a sensible bite. Alternating bites of bread with sips of water from his skin bag, Tobia stared at the lush green valley spread before them.
Vitus rolled his finger around his mouth to clear out the last vestiges of his meal. He rose and tromped to the gurgling stream and splashed water on his face.
With his eyes, Tobia followed the man’s every move.
Returning, Vitus plopped down and stared at Tobia. “Tell me about this God of yours.”
Tensing, Tobia ran his tongue over his teeth and waited.
“I’m not teasing.” Vitus shrugged. “I’d like to know where you get your power.”
Tobia tilted his head and considered the man before him. “What makes you think I have power?”
“You make deals faster than anyone your age has a right to. Villagers fall under some kind of spell the moment you walk near.”
“I’m just kind and honest.”
Vitus shook his empty water skin and frowned. Scrabbling to his feet, he returned to the stream and filled the bag. He peered over at Tobia. “There’s more to it than that. Your God aids you.”
“I won’t deny that’s true. But only because…” Tobia’s gaze wandered to the valley. “I don’t know why. He just does.”
Vitus lifted the dripping bag, tied a leather thong around the neck, and hooked it to his belt. Then he eyed Tobia. “I’d like some of that power myself.”
“God does what he wants.”
Vitus sat down and folded his hands over his knees. “I’d like to speak to Him face-to-face, as a man who contracts with a man.”
His heart thudding in his chest, a hollow sensation shot through Tobia’s middle. “I don’t think you can do that. God is…big.”
Vitus waved Tobia’s concern away and snorted. “I have plans. Good plans.”
“I’m not sure. I mean, you might offend Him and—”
“Don’t be an idiot.” Vitus snapped his fingers at Tobia. “Just tell me where He lives.”
After sipping the last drops of water from his bag, Tobia squeezed it flat. He glanced at Vitus, stood, and ambled to the stream. He laid his bag in the flowing water. “I don’t really know. I’ve heard that He resides on the high mountains.”
Peering into the distance, Vitus stared at the chain of mountains. He grinned.
Tying the mouth of the water skin-tight, Tobia clenched his jaw. “We need to get to the next village.”
Vitus rose and shoved Tobia in the shoulder. “We need to understand each other.” He bent in closer, his eyes narrowing to angry slits. “I’ve let you lead because everything seems to work in your favor. But that’s going to stop—today. I’ve been trading longer than you and if you’ve received help, I deserve the same assistance.” He pointed to the mountain. “Since He lives there, that’s where we’re going.”
Tobia gathered his bags and shoved them over his shoulder. Anxiety boiled in his stomach and dread weakened his knees. But as Vitus headed for the mountain, Tobia followed.
Tobia’s shaky legs slowed to a crawl. The mountains loomed closer and more forbidding as the evening wore on.
Glancing back, Vitus frowned and stomped back to Tobia. He shoved him hard and knocked him backward. “Listen, idiot, we’re not going anywhere else until after I get up that mountain and speak to your God. So you might as well move a little faster.”
Evening turned to twilight and soon faint stars appeared between wispy clouds. They trudged on until Vitus’ steps stumbled, and Tobia felt like he would collapse in an exhausted heap.
After dropping his bag beside a boulder, Vitus rolled into a ball and slept.
Dizzy and weak from hunger, Tobia crept to a tree and laid his bags aside. He rested his head on his knees. A black hole of depression swallowed him.
A sharp pinch on his arm forced his heavy eyes open too soon. Swallowing a sour taste and feeling like rocks were tied to his arms, he peered at the sky. A clear expanse of glorious stars twinkled down and a chill rippled over his body.
“Get up. We still have a long way to go.”
Tobia shook his head and rubbed stinging sleep from his eyes.
“If you’re hungry, good. All the more reason to move.” Vitus stumped away. “You won’t eat again until I say.”
As the sun broke over the horizon behind them, the mountains loomed straight up ahead. Like a man possessed, Vitus climbed the nearest slope.
“Oh, God.” Tobia’s head swam. “We can’t get up to the top. It’s too high. We’ll never make it.”
“Who said we have to go to the top? You just said He’s on the mountain. I can talk to Him when we get high enough. A God as powerful as yours will be able to hear me.”
“He won’t hear you! Or even if He does—”
Vitus climbed faster.
Scrambling for handholds and footholds, Tobia followed. His fingers tore against the rough surfaces and bled. His aching head threatened to burst.
As the sun climbed, dark clouds rolled in. A rumble in the distance warned of an impending storm.
Tobia stopped on a ledge about a third of the way up and wiped his sweaty brow. He peered up at Vitus. “It’s almost noon. How long before we stop?”
“There’s a wide space just ahead. We can climb up there and rest a bit. It looks like the perfect spot for a private conversation.”
As he scrambled over the lip of the edge, Tobia felt a dream-state block his vision. The eerie green expanse swirled into a nightmare, wavering and hovering like a roving monster.
Vitus dropped his bags and chuckled. “At last!”
Tobia fell to his knees and dropped his bags at his side. Hanging his head, he sucked in long draughts of air. A gust of wind whipped through his hair, sending a chill over his body. He glanced up.
Mountainous dark clouds roiled overhead.
Vitus peered at the sky and laughed. He pointed to the dreadful storm. “I think someone is waiting for me.”
With a whimper, Tobia crumpled on the ground, his gaze riveted on the man before him.
Vitus threw his arms straight into the air, his wide eyes glaring like a madman at the turbulent sky. “Oh, God, I’m here! Listen to me!”
A zigzagging flash of lightning exploded from the sky. Enveloped in brightness too intense to stand, Tobia covered his face. A crack of thunder split the air and rumbled across the firmament.
Tobia rolled onto his face and squeezed his eyes shut. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry!”
Even with his hands over his face, Tobia saw another bright flash and heard another crash of thunder. He curled into a tight ball and rocked, moaning apologies.
After the third flash of light and deafening crack, silence fell.
Tobia stopped rocking and waited.
A pounding rain lashed his body. He lay still, exhausted, and frozen with fear.
When the downpour decreased to drizzle, a cool wind swept through and caressed him. Tobia relaxed and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Tobia awoke with a neck ache and tasted grit between his teeth. Sitting up, he stretched and glanced around. The sun, rising in the east, pinked the mountainside. He looked around. “Where—?”
Only a few feet away, Vitus lay face up with his arms outstretched. His eyes stared without moving.
Tobia shuddered. He scrambled to his knees and scuttled closer.
Vitus lay frozen.
Poking Vitus’ shoulder, Tobia tensed. “Vitus?”
Not a flicker.
Climbing to his feet, Tobia hovered over Vitus and tapped his face. His skin felt warm to the touch and there was a faint blush on his cheeks. But not a hint of movement.
“Vitus? You all right?”
Tobia surveyed the land before him with a sweeping gaze. Not a cloud in sight. He stepped to the edge of the path they had climbed. He shook his head and glanced aside.
A rocky ledge edged around the mountain. A goat trail? He trotted over and peered along the distance. It sloped downward. With a sigh of relief, Tobia returned to Vitus. He knelt by the man’s side and shook his shoulder. “You’ve got to get up, Vitus. We need to get down the mountain.”
Vitus rolled like a ragdoll. When Tobia pulled on his arms, he slumped to a sitting position, but his eyes remained fixed and unnaturally wide, staring at nothing.
A chill prickled Tobia’s arms. He croaked his words, his throat dry and scratchy. “Oh, God, Vitus. What have you done?”
“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
Lud sat hunched on a bench next to Obed, in the center of the village. He glanced at Eoban who stood before them. They’re going to fight. I know it. He scooted to the edge of the bench.
Eoban faced Obed with his chest out, head up, and feet firmly planted on the ground. “I’m not going to continue in the trade business, and I never travel for fun. I plan to settle down. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get married.” He glanced at a group of women off to the side and grimaced. “Jonas will be so happy.”
Obed rose, slapping his hands to his sides, and faced Eoban. “So why—?”
“I must.” Eoban glanced around and met Lud’s gaze. “You understand, don’t you, Lud?”
Obed stomped closer. “Why are you asking him, since I’ll have to bear the burden—”
Eoban nudged Obed in the shoulder, one eyebrow rising. “A little adventure wouldn’t do you any harm, either.” He turned away. “I don’t trust things as we left them, and besides, Barak has taken responsibility for Ishtar’s sons. They have the right to know what happened to their father.”
Obed’s eyes narrowed as he placed his hands on his waist. “I never had much faith in Ishtar, and his degeneration merely proved his real quality.”
A memory flashed through Lud’s mind…Ishtar patting his arm, comforting and encouraging him on the day they walked away from bondage. Lud straightened and refocused his attention. “It’s true, Ishtar did disgrace himself. But Eoban has a point. When Ishtar helped free the slaves, he defied not only his father but also an evil within that would’ve doomed a lesser man. His bravery and decency saved my life.” He dropped his gaze. “The fact that he fell to the charms of an enchantress was partly my fault. My family rejected him. The insult was more than he could bear.”
Obed flicked his fingers dismissively. “From father to son. Who could trust such a man? I know I can’t!”
Exploding into wild arm waves, Eoban pounded forward. “Obed, you don’t have to trust Ishtar! I just want to find him, and if he’s alive, learn his plans. We’ve got to forge a new future without the fear that he might return someday. Certainly, his sons need to know the truth.”
Obed tilted his head, a wary expression in his eyes. “I never noticed you giving them much attention.”
“I’ve watched and listened. They’re better boys than I had dared to hope. They must’ve inherited their temperaments from their grandmother. They’re nothing like Haruz or even Ishtar, for that matter, though Amin does tend to brood at times. Who wouldn’t under such a cloud? That’s why I must go.”
Obed shrugged. “It’ll be a waste of time, but let’s tell Jonas and see what she has to say.” He strode sedately across the village, toward his wife.
Locking his hands behind his back, Eoban paced before the bench.
Lud glanced at Eoban. “You knew he wouldn’t like the idea. Why didn’t you just go alone on one of your famous journeys? You’re a free man.”
Bending low, Eoban met Lud’s gaze. “Because I don’t know what I am getting myself into, and I’d like traveling companions.”
Lud’s heart lurched into his throat and lodged there.
Obed followed behind Jonas. She marched up to Eoban, her brows furrowed, and her arms swinging like scythes ready for harvest. “What madness! You want to look for Ishtar? A risk for no gain—it’s not like you.”
Standing his ground, Eoban drummed his fingers on his leg. He turned to Obed. “If you’re going to call in Jonas, I’m calling in Namah.” He huffed, clearly put out. “While we’re at it, we’ll call in Barak and Amin…and Caleb too.”
Lud dragged a hand over his mouth, smothering a sigh.
Eoban swung his glare from Obed to Jonas. “What do you say? I’ll gather everyone, and we’ll meet tonight.”
Eoban nudged Obed. “Mind if we convene at your place?”
Obed shrugged. “You’re playing with fire, Eoban. But fine. The outcome will affect us all.”
Lud slipped off the bench and watched as Obed and Jonas strolled away. He turned to Eoban. “Why make this even bigger…and harder?”
Eoban sighed. “It’s not going to get any easier for a long while yet.”
Lud lifted his hands in surrender. “Long as I don’t have to join in your madness.”
Jonas peered at a spectrum of colors ranging from pink to purple. She exhaled a long, slow breath. Tree branches stretched into the sky, creating a vision of contrasts. The black horizon etched the contour of the low hills, while the world around blended all the hues of the universe into one vast sheet of darkness. She murmured under her breath. “If other beings do exist, we’ll learn the truth of it…whether we hope to or not.”
Obed strode up from behind and squeezed her shoulders.
“Chatting to your invisible friend again?”
Jonas stiffened and faced her husband. “A blind man doesn’t know what he can’t see.”
Barak stood outside his house, his thoughts trailing into the distance.
Eoban, silhouetted against the dark sky, strode forward. “Contemplating your existence?”
Barak rubbed his jaw. “As a matter of fact, I was just wishing for warriors.”
Eoban grinned. “Now you’re speaking my language!”
Pointing to the bench, Barak paced before his house. “Sit down, and we can discuss the foolishness of being unprepared.”
Eoban clapped his hands. “You’ve spoken the desires of my heart! But I know a better place…with an appreciative audience. Come, let’s go!”
A sudden pain twitched. Barak rubbed his neck and rolled his shoulders. “What’re you talking about?”
“I am talking about whatever it was you were talking about—but with more details. Don’t argue. Come on! Namah is already waiting, and it’s getting dark.”
“Don’t ask! Just call those two boys. Where are they?” He cast his gaze around the village. “Amin and Caleb?”
“What do you want with them? They’re fine. I’ve never seen them so happy.”
Eoban lifted his hands. “Don’t worry. I’m not about to put them in any danger. We just want to speak with them about their father.”
A rock settled in Barak’s stomach. He glanced at the children playing in the distance. “Amin! Caleb! Hurry up, boys! We have business to attend to.”
Amin and Caleb raced forward, grinning. “Hello, Eoban! Yes, Barak?”
Eoban’s voice boomed. “We have a long journey before us, boys, adventure!”
Amin’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
“I’ll explain later. If I don’t gather everyone now, it’ll never happen, so hurry.”
The three traipsed to the lake.
Namah sat in a small boat gripping the edges. Eoban ushered the rest in and rowed across the lake at an alarming speed. By the time they reached the shore, the sun had set, and the glowing full moon rose.
Jonas laid wooden trenchers of minced goat meat, bread, honey, olives, dates, cheese and vegetables on a spread cloth. Carafes of spiced wine stood at the center.
Amin and Caleb dispensed with all formality, gathered what they could hold, and ate to their heart’s content. Eoban followed, gesturing for Barak and Obed to hurry.
When everyone had eaten their fill and became acquainted with Eoban’s plan, they fell into silence.
Pacing before them, Eoban clasped his hands behind his back. “So, who will come with me in search of Ishtar?”
Amin stood, his gaze following Eoban. “I will.”
“Then I go too.” Caleb gripped the edge of Amin’s tunic. “To keep you safe.”
Amin pried his brother’s fingers off. “No! You can’t. You’re too little.”
“Don’t leave me!” Caleb broke into sobs.
Jonas hustled closer and wrapped her arms around the child. “Don’t worry, Caleb. You must act like a man now and help keep the home fires burning. Milkan will need you more than ever if Barak is going away.”
The settled rock exploded in Barak’s stomach, and his eyebrows shot up as he glanced around. “Am I going somewhere?”
Jonas peered at Eoban. “If you’re determined to go, then you must take Barak along.” She looked Barak full in the face. “I know you have a lot to do, but please—” She glanced at Eoban. “He might wander places where wiser heads would avoid.”
Eoban winced and snapped a piece of thatch from the low roof. “Thanks for your confidence.”
“Oh, Eoban, you know you want Barak to go. Obed would be of no use. He’d think too much and drive you mad.”
Eoban tapped his fingers together, nodding. “I have no objection to Obed joining us. It might be good to have a thinking man along.”
Rising, Barak tossed a branch on the fire. “Thanks for your confidence.”
Eoban rolled his eyes and threw a stick at Barak.
Obed chuckled. “Contrary to all expectations, I’ll take up the challenge and go with you, Eoban.”
Jonas stared at Obed, her mouth dropping open.
Nausea rising, Barak folded his arms over his chest. “With Ishtar gone, I’ve been the leader of two clans. Would it be right for me to leave? And if Obed leaves…”
Eoban leapt forward. “No better time! Things are peaceful. Harvests have been good. We’re doing well.”
Obed nodded. “We’ll have to appoint someone to lead in our absence.”
Barak wiped sweat off his brow. “Who’s strong enough to manage three clans, wise enough to keep everyone calm, and completely trustworthy?”
All eyes swiveled toward Lud.
Lud raised his hands in protest. “Oh, no! I’m a former slave, and I have no experience. Please, you’d be mad to leave me in charge!”
A gleam sparkled in Eoban’s eyes. “Insecure, hesitant, and unwilling? You have all the qualifications, Lud. Congratulations!”
Lud glanced around with imploring eyes. “Eoban? Obed? Barak! You can’t be serious. Think what this could mean?”
Eoban patted his shoulder. “Lud, can you honestly tell Amin and Caleb that we can’t go in search of Ishtar because you’re afraid of managing things for a few days?”
Lud glanced from Amin’s sober face to Caleb’s red-rimmed eyes.
“Oh, all right.” He shot a glance into the darkness. “But I won’t know what I’m doing.”