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.
I don’t write to tell the world something. I write to figure out what the world is trying to tell me.
I’m nearly finished writing the last book of the OldEarth Encounter Trilogy, ending with OldEarth Neb Encounter, about a son who recounts the story of his grandfather, fully aware that—for good or evil—inheritance isn’t everything. Terrible history may haunt us, but it does not have to inhabit us.
It has taken me years to get that message.
I’m also posting the chapters of Last of Her Kind on Medium’s Illumination publication. When I originally wrote the first version of the story, I was a young mother trying to figure out my place in motherhood and wifedom.
When I wrote the second version, my husband had died, and I was a single mom raising a large brood of kids, awesomely aware of my limitations. The wider universe comforted me. Though lonely, I was never really alone. A message I needed to incorporate into every cell of my being.
Just when I thought I had my feet under me, and the world lined up according to a well-considered plan, along comes a pandemic and the whole planet is tossed into turmoil. Last of Her Kind looks different from this perspective.
But the message is the same. Just louder.
I think about what Harriet Beecher Stowe learned from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. What the world discovered from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. What Jem shared with humanity in To Kill A Mockingbird.
Life informs or deforms. Art—like faith—transforms.
To write is to see what the soul believes but the finger can’t quite touch.
Each reader brings his or her world to the page. I write the word “table” and it isn’t my kitchen heirloom that gets transported into a reader’s mind. It’s their kitchen table. In every word, we see what we know. Our version of humans and aliens. Life and death. Good and evil.
Yet perhaps…we also glimpse something new. Something more. We let God out of our brain box, and we consider a wider, vitally alive Universe. Possibilities as yet undreamed of.
A fascinating conversation the world and I are having. As long as words appear on pages—let’s keep talking.
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.”
Tobia tried to sound curious. “So, where do we go next?” Peering blankly ahead, Vitus frowned. “I’m thinking, you stupid oaf! If you’d be quiet, I might be able to come up with a solution to this problem!”
Tobia bit his lip. I knew it. We’re lost.
Vitus tapped his foot and scratched his head. “I’ve been through here before, but someone’s changed things.”
Choking on a snort, Tobia clenched his hands. Changed what? The trees? He exhaled a long breath and stared at the woods before, beside, and behind him. No path. No village. No sign that a human being had ever trekked through this wilderness before. “Maybe we should go back to the last village and—”
Vitus swung around and glared at Tobia. “Those idiots don’t know anything. Scoundrels. Worse than slinking wolves. They would’ve robbed us if given a chance.”
Tobia closed his eyes to the memory of Vitus shuffling up to the village leader, his gaze darting every direction, and stumbling through a request to speak to the clan. A shiver ran down his spine. A rough shake made him blink back into the world.
“Don’t think you can take a nap. We’ve got a long way to go today.”
Always a long way. But we never get anywhere.
Vitus swung his loaded bag over his shoulder and started tromping to the right. He stopped short and turned to the left.
Tobia lopped along beside, peering out of the corner of his eye at Vitus. He’s more than lost. He’s terrified. He ducked under a hanging branch.
Tobia stumbled to a halt and looked up.
Vitus stood frozen in the middle of a briar patch. A vine of sharp nettles clung to his hairy arm.
Tobia swallowed. A veritable wall of needles blocked their path in nearly every direction. “I guess we’d better —”
With a grunt, Vitus slipped his knife from his belt and began hacking.
Tobia’s throat went dry. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Vitus grunted and swore as he hacked right and left, sweat dripping down his arms and legs.
Tobia stood his ground. “You’ll only get—”
“Oh, by the gods! It’s got me.”
After inching forward, Tobia stopped behind Vitus and peered over his shoulder. “Oh, Creation of God.”
Blood seeped from uncountable scratches and cuts as thorns and vines gripped Vitus’ arms and legs. “Demon woods!” Vitus tried to shake loose but screamed with the effort.
“Stop! You’re only making it worse.” Tobia carefully and painstakingly pinched each vine and tugged it to the side.
Vitus fumed and whimpered.
Finally free, Tobia gripped Vitus by the arm and helped steer him backward, clearing the way as they went.
Once out of the brambles, Vitus threw himself on the ground and covered his face with his hands, groaning.
Tobia’s gaze lifted from the pathetic figure to the glimmers of the sun through the branches. The sun had lowered considerably since they halted for their mid-day meal. He sighed. “I think I left something back at the last village. Would you mind if we retraced our steps, so I could enquire about it?”
Vitus lifted his arm and peered at him in a grieved manner as if Tobia were the stupidest boy on the earth, but he rolled to his side and staggered to his feet.
“It is getting late, and I don’t want to get caught out in the middle of nowhere with you crying your head off over some little thing.”
Tobia grimaced and turned around.
After some time, they ended up back in the village they had left that morning. Tobia strode to a woman he recognized. “Hello, my name is Tobia. We were here this morning, offering trade goods.” He flashed an embarrassed smile. “I accidentally left something behind. May I look for it?”
The woman nodded. “Certainly, Tobia. My name is Kamila. I’ll help you look. What was it?”
“Oh, uh…something my father made for me before he died. My mother will be so—”
Kamila smiled and lifted a hand. “Say no more. I understand.”
As they searched across the village and in the various dwellings they had visited that morning, Kamila asked Tobia about his family, and he described the members of his clan like warriors from songs of old.
When they came to the end of their search, Kamila perched her hands on her hips and frowned. She stood before Tobia in the village center and shook her head. “I hate to say you’ve lost it for good, but it’s certainly not here.”
Tobia shrugged. “It may turn up yet.” He glanced at Vitus sitting under a tree in the distance, chewing moodily on a crust of bread. “Perhaps Vitus packed it up with the trade goods and forgot.”
Kamila squinted at Vitus. Her mouth pursed in distaste.
Tobia stepped between Vitus and Kamila, blocking her view. He peered into her lovely eyes. “You know, Vitus has had a very hard life. He lost his wife and entire family to sickness some years ago, but he’s carried on the trade despite his loss and suffering.” He glanced at the sky. God forgive me.
Kamila tipped her head and leaned so as to peer around Tobia at Vitus. She smiled.
Tobia glanced over his shoulder.
Vitus met Kamila’s gaze. He sat up straighter.
Kamila swung around Tobia and sauntered over to Vitus.
Vitus scrambled to his feet.
Kamila extended her hands. “I’m sorry we were not more welcoming to you this morning.” She glanced aside and frowned. “There’s been trouble in the area, and it’s hard to know who to trust.”
Vitus, appearing very much like a rat caught in a trap, stared wide-eyed.
Tobia stepped to his side and locked on Kamila’s face. “It’s getting late. Is there any hope you could direct us to a safe place for the night?”
Kamila shifted her gaze to Tobia and smiled. “You’ll stay here, certainly. My family and neighbors would enjoy hearing about your people and adventures.”
Vitus’ mouth dropped open. His eyes shifted from Kamila to Tobia.
Tobia clamped his hand on Vitus’ shoulder as he spoke for both of them. “We’d be very happy to accept your invitation.”
Tobia sat next to Vitus as dusk settled into night. He rubbed his hands against the evening chill.
A short, stocky man with a thick beard and gray eyes, wearing a sleeveless tunic and a wide belt, sauntered near. He crossed his arms over his chest and peered first at Vitus and then at Tobia.
Tobia held his gaze.
“I’m Kamila’s brother, Remy.” He gestured to three other men assembled a short distance away. “We were hunting earlier. She told us about you.” His gaze swept over Vitus again, and he scratched his chin. “She’ll bring dinner out soon, but in the meantime, you can tell us about yourselves and your people.”
Vitus lifted his head and opened his mouth, but Tobia gripped his hand, squeezing hard. “I’d be happy to.”
Describing the best parts of their clan’s nature and leaving out everything to their disadvantage, Tobia retold the story of Neb’s invasion, the great drought, the terrible fire, and Ishtar’s madness and exile.
The entire village assembled in a ring around the flickering fire as Tobia regaled them with the tales. Kamila brought venison, fruit, and stewed roots.
Vitus ate with alacrity, only glancing up now and again to grunt in agreement with something Tobia said.
His belly full and his story told, Tobia wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, sighing in gratitude and relief.
Remy chuckled. “You’ve told a wonderful tale, young man. Any ancient would be proud of such a recital.” He glanced at the throng, his gaze lingering on his sister, Kamila, longer than the rest. “But I should warn you, there’s been trouble around here of late.” He wiped his hands on his tunic. “There’re men who say they’ve come to trade, but instead they observe and later return to steal what they could not obtain through honest means.”
Tobia looked at the assembly. Weariness and sadness enveloped him. “I’m sorry. I can see why you didn’t trust us at first.” His gaze wandered to Vitus who was now leaning on a larger man, snoring in a deep slumber.
He rose and edged Vitus to the side so the villager could slip out from under Vitus’ weight.
Remy shook his head and wandered over. Together Tobia and Remy led the sleepy Vitus to a grassy spot under a tree.
Vitus grunted and curled up, laying his head on his arm.
After plucking Tobia’s sleeve, Remy gestured back to the circle of firelight.
Many clansmen and most of the women shuffled off to their evening duties and their own beds.
Remy perched on a log next to Tobia. “That sleeping fool can’t help you through your travels.” He glanced at Vitus slumbering form, little more than an outline of a shadow in the darkness. “Much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, it behooves me to tell you that you have aligned yourself with either a wicked deceiver or an incompetent idiot.” He clasped his hands over his knees. “That man knows nothing about trading.”
Tobia sighed. “I realize that—now.”
Remy shook his head. “How could your father let you go with such a fool?”
“He believed his wonderful stories. Somehow, Vitus managed to succeed when he followed in the footsteps of other clansmen. But this time, he thought he’d find his own way and start his own trade routes.”
“That man” —Remy pointed to the snoring figure— “is no more capable of good business than a fish of walking about on land.” Remy shook his head. “Take a word of advice. Go home and leave him to find his own way.” He shrugged. “He might live.” Remy met Tobia’s eyes. “But at least, you’ll survive.”
Warm gratitude flooded Tobia. Someone actually cared about him. After Vitus’ abuse, it felt like a gentle rain after a severe drought. He stood, stretched, and peered at Remy.
“I trust in the providence of God. We’ll make it home again. I agreed to this journey, now I must see it through.”
Remy glanced into the night sky. “Perhaps your coming was ordained from on high.” He stood and pressed Tobia’s hand in his own. “I hope we meet again.”
Tobia nodded and glanced at Kamila’s dwelling in the distance. “Me too.”
“What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”
Amin stood in the center of the village with his hands on his hips and his mind reeling in fury. He squinted in the mid-day sun. If someone had told him that his father was living among nomads of the desert, he would have shrugged the information away. He had troubles of his own, and no one, especially not his father, could help him now.
Namah stopped in front of him. Her gaze surveyed his face, and she frowned. “Amin, may I speak with you?”
Clenching his hands at his sides, Amin turned abruptly and strode away.
With an intake of breath, Namah pattered after him, her feet slapping the dusty ground. “Amin! You know who I am and why I’m here. I’ve found a family—”
Amin halted and spun around, his whole body stiffening against the desire to strike. “Caleb is my family. I want no other.”
Namah panted, her face flushing and strands of loose hair falling into her face. “Jared and his wife, Lia, have agreed to adopt you. They’ll take—”
Amin’s rage burst from all constraints. “Take? Yes, they’ll take! Do you know how they treat us? Like dogs. They don’t care for us. They hate us.”
Namah shook her head, her eyes wide with wonder. “I just spoke with them this morning. Their parents are old, and they need help. Would it be so hard to assist—?”
“Who are you to give me away like a goat?” Amin growled deep in his throat. “You’re not even a member of this clan. You have no authority here. Leave me and my brother alone!” Jerking around, Amin sped toward the tree-lined stream. Clamping his arms over his chest, he stared at the foaming water as it crashed against rocks and gurgled through narrow channels.
Flapping footsteps stopped at his side.
Amin clenched his jaw tight against a scream.
Namah’s voice rose. “Like it or not, Amin, I do have a part to play in your life. Your father nearly murdered my daughter, but I have never blamed you or your brother. You’re victims of his madness as well.”
Amin turned slowly. “I’m not a victim! I take good care of Caleb, and we’re fine. We don’t need you. And we certainly won’t be enslaved by Jared and his wife.”
“But you’re living like animals!” Namah sucked in a deep breath and pressed her hands against her chest as if to alleviate a sudden pain. She breathed slowly, in and out, and straightened her shoulders. “What has Jared done so terribly wrong—?”
Smacking one hand against another, Amin stomped forward and glared into Namah’s eyes. “Jared hardly feeds his own father. He had him working out in the sun the other day until the old man collapsed. And Lia’s mother isn’t allowed to do anything without asking for permission first.” He swung his gaze to the village. “No one dares speak of it because Jared is a cruel man.” He swung around and faced the water again. “Even Caleb feels sorry for the old people. He wants me to free them from their misery.”
Namah padded around and faced Amin. “How could this be true and yet no one has warned me?”
“What happens to Caleb and me is of little consequence. Most of the clan wishes we were dead. They hate being reminded of my father’s disgrace.”
“But many of your people supported Ishtar.”
“They supported him when he made the clan rich. No one supports a man in exile.”
Clasping her hands over her mouth, tears swam in Namah’s eyes. “I only want to help.”
“By sending us to Jared, you’d send my little brother and me to misery and early death. For which of these expectations do you wish me to give you thanks?”
Namah backed up and plopped down on a log jutting into the water. “Am I so blind?” She shook her head and met Amin’s gaze. “I never thought to ask…you.”
Amin crossed his arms and glared.
A tear slipped down Namah’s face.
Scurrying up a tree, a squirrel waved its tail and clicked in warning. Two crows cawed and burst from the branches overhead.
Amin heaved a deep breath, his chest tight and painful.
Namah jerked to her feet, her eyes wide and anxiety wrinkling around them. “I should’ve asked Barak’s advice. He’ll be furious with me.”
Amin’s arms fell limply at his sides, his anger seeping away like the heat from a gray campfire. “Why do you care anyway? We’re nothing to you. Only a painful reminder.”
Namah turned to the bank and stared ahead. “A long time ago, almost a lifetime, I made a terrible choice. I regretted it—” She choked. “Aram forgave me.” She glanced back and peered at Amin. A bitter chuckle broke from her wobbling lips. “Everyone forgave me.” She wiped her face and stepped nearer. “I pity Ishtar. He fell, and no one cared to pick him up again.”
Amin dropped his gaze. A sharp pain lodged in his chest.
Namah laid her hand on his shoulder. “Though he’s gone into exile, I believe your father still cares for you.” Her voice dropped to a husky whisper. “I do.”
Amin lifted his eyes. “Perhaps, if I speak with Barak, he’ll understand. Perhaps, he’ll think of a solution.”
One of Namah’s eyebrows rose. “You admit there is a problem?”
“I admit that Caleb needs more than just an angry older brother.”
A smile quivered on Namah’s lips. “First I must see Jared and his wife and rescind my agreement.”
“They’ll be furious.”
“Not as furious as Barak will be.”
A splutter of relief surged through Amin’s middle.
“Maybe you need my help?”
Namah patted his shoulder and grinned. “Caleb has a very astute brother.”
Amin shrugged and squinted through an upturned gaze. “I know you meant well.” He looked toward the mountains. “If my father still lives and learns of your kindness, he’ll be grateful.”
With a nod, Namah stepped away. “I’ll leave you for now, but we’ll meet again. In the meantime, keep your brother safe.”
Amin watched until Namah rounded a corner and was lost from sight. He scratched his jaw and glanced around, a dart of concern jabbing him. “Where is Caleb?”
*A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.
“I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”
– Ernest Hemingway
Eoban’s booming laugh reverberated through the trees. He stood in front of a new dwelling and watched Gilbreth try to free himself from his two younger siblings who clung to him like creeping vines in midsummer. Eoban stepped closer.
The children’s eyes widened in stark terror.
Loping forward, Eoban scooped Ham into his arms and swung him high into the air.
Screaming bloody murder, Ham struggled for a handhold, using Eoban’s nose for support.
Eoban laughed louder. He flipped the child around to face his mother and father.
Lud smiled and waved.
Dinah held out her hands, ready to receive her baby boy. She grinned as she took him her arms. “Does Eoban the Giant scare my baby?” Standing next to Eoban, she tapped his arm. “He’s a good man.” She kissed the little boy on the nose.
With a new light in his eyes and mad glee in his heart, Eoban strode toward Deli.
The little girl scampered into her brother’s arms in a desperate attempt to flee from the approaching menace.
Lud laughed so hard, he bent double and lifted one hand in surrender. “Deli, don’t be afraid. He’s a friend. He wants to make friends with you.”
The little girl peeked around Gilbreth’s neck and pointed an accusing finger. “He’ll throw me up in the air and drop me!” She nuzzled her head against Gilbreth and murmured into his neck. “You won’t let him get me, will you?”
Gilbreth managed to gasp. “Don’t worry. But please, I can’t breathe!”
Eoban shuffled to a halt and chuckled.
Lud strode over and rescued his eldest son.
Gilbreth offered wide-eyed gratitude as his father pried his sister from his body.
Eoban pointed at Gilbreth. “You have a remarkable son, Lud. Few boys could take such treatment without complaint. I bet he’s as fearless as he is good-natured.” Leaping forward, Eoban grabbed Gilbreth by the waste and then swung him over his shoulder. He peered from Ham to Deli. “See, little ones. I swing children into the air.” He swung Gilbreth around and then placed him gently on his feet. “But I do not drop.”
Red in the face, Gilbreth readjusted his tunic.
Eoban patted Gilbreth on the back, best of buddies.
Lud grinned. “You’re a man of many talents! As I remember, you used to tell entertaining stories, too. Maybe, if my children are very good, you’ll tell a few tales today?”
“To be sure!” Eoban smiled broadly. “Even if they are not so very good.” He stepped forward and waved to the dwelling before them. “So, how do you like the house?”
A rosy sun settling on the horizon, a cool breeze, and evening bird song set a peaceful scene.
“It’s beautiful.” Lud glanced at his wife. “We’d like to build one very much like it.”
Eoban rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Build? This one is vacant, and I know the owners. I’m sure they’d offer a fair deal.”
Dinah’s face lit up. “We’d be neighbors then?” She glanced at her children. “But we might get a bit noisy.”
Eoban ran his fingers through his wild, unkempt hair. “I’m easily bored. I enjoy hearing laughter—or screams—as the case may be.”
Dinah giggled, nestling her baby against her shoulder.
Stepping forward, Lud peered at the framework and slapped a post with a firm hand. “Could you introduce us to the owners tomorrow? We’ll make camp for the night and meet them in the morning.”
“Make camp? Perish the thought. I’ll introduce you to the owners tonight, though” —Eoban jogged a few paces away and waved at distant figures shuffling in the center of the village— “it might take me a few moments to gather them up.” He flung a grin at Lud. “Make yourselves at home. I’ll be right back.”
Dinah sighed, strode to her husband’s side, and clasped his hand.
Carrying the little ones and with Gilbreth in tow, Lud and Dinah circled the dwelling.
Lud stroked his chin. “It’s new. A few rough spots but generally well-done.” He nudged his wife. “Eoban’s a bit of a mystery, isn’t he?”
Dinah’s gaze roamed over two matching front benches. “I trust him. A man without guile.”
Lud nodded. “Honest to a fault. You’ll never wonder what he thinks.” He glanced at the sinking sun. “It’s getting late. Let’s get supper.”
Gilbreth jumped forward. “I’ll start the fire. Man’s work. Finally.”
Lud unrolled mats, and Dinah pulled provisions from their bags.
A rumble of murmuring voices rose in the distance. Dinah glanced up as Lud turned to face the approaching throng. She edged closer to Lud and gripped his arm.
A crowd of young men ambled forward chattering in high-spirited exuberance.
Eoban led the group, his voice rising above the rest. “Remember your manners. They’re new here, and their children are a bit skittish. Don’t talk too loud or make foolish jokes. Just smile a lot. Understand?”
The assembled heads nodded. One voice lifted above the rest. “Just don’t tell them who made the roof, whatever you do!” Laughter soared like a flock of excited birds.
Eoban tapped the speaker on the head. “You know who’ll be doing all the repair work if there are any problems, right?”
The boys chorused as one voice. “Eoban!” A roar of approval met this comment.
Lud glanced at his wife and grinned.
Eoban and his troop halted in front of the stupefied family. Silence ensued as the two groups stared at one another.
Lud laid a comforting hand on his Gilbreth’s shoulder.
Eoban nudged one young man forward. “Go on, Tannit.”
A handsome, dark-haired lad of fifteen stepped forward, his gaze skittering from husband to wife. “You and Dinah were expected, Lud, and your children too, of course. We wanted to make you feel welcome. It was Eoban’s idea, but he made us feel like it was ours, since we did all the work.” He blushed. “Though he worked, too. He had to tell all those stories!” Tannit grinned. “So, we built you this house. We figured it was something you’d need right away, and it wouldn’t spoil if you were late in coming.” He glanced at the house. “Hope you like it.” Biting his lip, he stepped aside.
Giving Tannit a firm pat on the shoulder, Eoban spoke up. “The boys worked very hard.” He flashed a grand smile.
Lud stood frozen and wondered if his heart had stopped beating.
Dinah smiled, her eyes round with shock.
Attempting to make his mouth work, Lud swallowed and sucked in a deep breath. “You mean…this house is ours? It’s too much. How could we ever repay such generosity?”
A younger, slighter-built youth stepped forward and stared boldly at Lud. “My name is Onia, son of Jonas and Obed.” He brushed a stray lock of hair from his eyes. “Truth is, we’re only paying you back for all you’ve done for us. Didn’t you lead the slave revolt? Wasn’t it you who befriended Pele so she could warn us about the Giants? You helped a whole passel of children during the great fire and brought the vision that stopped Ishtar.” He shuffled his feet, his gaze dropping to the ground. “It seems to me that we’d have to build many houses—and better ones than this—to repay all you’ve done for us. We’re just being grateful…as all worthy people are grateful.” With a little shrug, he stepped back among his peers.
Mouths fell open across the assembled group.
Tears ached behind Lud’s eyes. Straining, he swallowed and clasped his hands together. “I accept your gift then, and my family and I will treasure this house as a warrior treasures his finest weapon.” He glanced from one face to another, finally landing on Eoban. “We thank you from the depths of our hearts.”
His eyes gleaming, Eoban squeezed Onia’s shoulder. “Breeding is in the blood.” He glanced around. “Boys, show Gilbreth around while I help Lud and his family get settled. We ought to celebrate!”
Dinah’s face blanched. “I don’t have enough provisions to feed the whole clan.”
Onia turned on his heel and called back. “Don’t worry. Mother and the other women have been preparing a feast for days. It’s their surprise.”
The troop of boys galloped away, laughing and shouting. Looking like a proud father, Eoban stared after the boys.
Lud took his wife’s hand, and they laced their fingers together. His heart swelled, joy flooding his whole body.
“I want to see!” Ham scampered to the doorway and peered inside with Gilbreth holding Deli on the other side. Lud and Dinah stepped closer and leaned over them, glimpsing the dim interior.
Lud felt a hand on his shoulder.
Eoban nudged him forward, nearly tumbling the whole family. “Go on! It’s your house now. Make yourselves comfortable!”
Before stepping over the threshold, Lud glanced back at the glowing horizon. The same horizon he knew as a boy in captivity. The same horizon he shared with his family in the hills. The same horizon he shared with his wife and children while traveling. Tears slipped down his cheek. Forever, now, this horizon would glow in splendor…just outside his home.
Jonas stood outside her dwelling and hugged Tobia in a tight embrace, an ache building behind her eyes.
Vitus, dressed in a short gray tunic, matching leggings, and with a dark red cloak flung over his shoulders, stood aside, tapping his foot and drumming his fingers on his walking staff. As he looked to the sky, he exhaled a long-suffering sigh.
Tobia, wearing a new long-sleeved white robe over tan leggings pulled back and chewed his lip. His gaze flickered to Obed out of the corner of his eyes.
Jonas glanced from her son to her husband and back to her son. Her stomach clenched into painful knots. She caressed the side of Tobia’s face, letting strands of his fine brown hair stream through her fingers. Staring into his eyes, she tried to memorize every feature.
Obed turned away.
Like children at play, birds swooped and circled in the sky above.
Vitus drummed his staff faster, louder. His sighs turned to huffs and were not encouraging.
Pulling away, Jonas released her boy. “I’ve lost one son—and your father. I cannot bear—”
Vitus lifted his hand. “We’re not going to the earth’s edge, woman. Just the trading circuit.” He slung a limp bag over his shoulder and peered at Tobia’s bulging bag. “We have a long road before nightfall, so if you don’t mind?”
Jonas forced a smile despite impending tears. “I’m sure you’ll do well.” She smashed down rising nausea. “Vitus is a good man of business, and he’ll teach you a great deal. And” —she dropped her voice to a whisper and leaned in— “you’ll teach him a thing or two, no doubt.”
With a grunt, Vitas whapped Tobia on the back and looked up. “The sun is far higher than I intended for our leave-taking. Come now, you’ve said enough farewells for six sons.” His scowl swung from Tobia to Jonas. “Let’s go!”
Tobia nodded and shifted his bag over his shoulder. “I’ll do what I can.”
Vitus stomped off in haste.
Tobia trotted after him.
Wiping her face with the back of her hand, Jonas glanced around. Villagers scurried in their daily duties, no one noticing a mother’s tears. Her shoulders sagged under a hidden weight as she turned to her dwelling and stepped into the cool interior. Slicing roots and vegetables for the mid-day meal, she muttered under her breath. “If that man—”
“Talking to someone?” Obed stood in the doorway, his face draped in shadow.
A stream of light broke through the window and fell across Jonas, making her blink.
With a headshake, Obed grinned and strode to her side. He sniffed the pot. “I hope you’re making something good. I’m starving.”
Her irritation frothing into righteous indignation, Jonas scowled. “Everything I make is good.” She swept the sliced pieces into a pot. “And yes, I am talking to someone. And no, I’m not overprotective.” She sloshed water from a pitcher into the pot and plunked it on the table.
Obed lifted his hands. “I didn’t say anything.” He snatched a date from a bowl and chewed.
Pulling a tray close, Jonas flipped a cloth off a rounded ball of dough. She flattened the dough with her fist and began kneading it with her palms. “You don’t need to say anything. The look in your eye is enough.”
Obed’s eyes widened. “What look?”
“The look you gave me when I hugged Tobia goodbye. The look you make every time Tobia and I pray to God.” She laid the dough aside.
Shaking his head, Obed retreated to the other side of the room, folded his arms, and leaned against the wall. “I won’t deny that your private conversations do seem rather childish, and you did act like Tobia was being sent to his death this morning.”
With deliberate jerks, Jonas wiped the dough off her fingers and rinsed them under a stream of water from the pitcher. “First things first. Our prayers are childish?” Jonas dropped the washcloth on the board. “How about Eymard? Was he a foolish old man? Or Pele? Was she being childish when she appeared out of nowhere and stopped the sacrifice?”
Pushing off the wall, Obed sauntered to a corner and plopped down. He plumped the pillow beside him and peered at Jonas. He waved her over. “Let’s talk without all the dramatic fury—if that’s possible.”
Her shoulders drooping, Jonas stepped over and plunked down stiffly at his side.
“I’m willing to consider what you have to say, but it’d help if you weren’t bristling like a pine tree in high wind every time I talk to you.”
Tears threatening, Jonas closed her eyes and clasped her hands. After a deep breath, she opened her eyes and met Obed’s gaze.
Obed wrapped his arm around her and drew her to his chest.
“I’m sorry I insulted your faith. I shouldn’t say anything”—he grinned— “even with my eyes.” He peered at her. “But you know perfectly well that Tobia’s journey will be good for him. You were suffocating him, treating him like a child.” He squeezed her shoulder playfully. “I bet that God of yours would agree.”
Her stomach unclenching, Jonas relaxed and sighed. “You might be right, but I wish you’d talk to Tobia about his beliefs—and his work. It means so much to him.”
With a chuckle, Obed pulled his arm free and laced his fingers together. “What’s there to talk about? How to hoe a field or watch over a flock?”
Her chin hardening, Jonas nudged away. “I mean his carvings. Tobia’s art speaks to the human spirit.”
With a grunt, Obed shook his head and rose. “Men don’t need to trouble themselves with spirits. I have no wish to become like Ishtar—or any of his kind.” He took Jonas’s hand and pulled her to her feet.
Jonas slapped dust off her dress. “I’m not asking you to become like Ishtar—God forbid. But don’t you ever wonder where the soul goes at death? What other world we might enter? What happened to Onias and Aram?”
Clenching his jaw, Obed slapped a post. “Onias is dead. Aram is dead. Ishtar might as well be dead. It’s time you moved on.” He swung around. “I can’t live in two worlds. One is quite enough for me.” He glared at Jonas, his nostrils flaring as his breathing quickened. “There is no other world.” He bent over and pinched a smidgen of dirt, sifting it through his fingers. “After death, there’s nothing more than this.”
Jonas stomped across the room and stared Obed in the eye. “How can you be so blind? Don’t you see that we have a Creator—a great being beyond us?”
A grin played on Obed’s lips as his gaze roamed over Jonas. “I see greatness before me. I don’t need to look beyond.”
Blushing, Jonas dropped her gaze. “You’re just being stubborn.”
“No, I’m being honest. I’ve more useful things to do than worry about other worlds and gods beyond my sight.”
“Aram believed in God. He told Tobia so.”
Obed grabbed another date and studied it as if it contained a secret. “When a man is dying, it’s comforting to think such things—great banquets in the sky, meeting old friends. I’ll probably want the same comfort when I’m on my death bed.”
“Why wait till then? Talk to God now. Just once—pray.”
With a groan, Obed popped the date in his mouth, chewed, and swallowed. “I’d feel like a fool.”
Defeat bowing her shoulders, Jonas dropped her head.
Obed rolled his shoulders. “All right. If it’ll make you happy, I’ll try.” He blew air between his lips and peered at his wife. “But you’ve got to stop babying Tobia. He’s a man, and he must grow up. Carving is fine—but he needs to support his family and this clan.”
Stepping forward, Obed ran his fingers over her hair, caressing her neck.
A pleasant shiver ran down Jonas’ back.
Obed whispered in her ear. “I’m still hungry. You won’t let me starve?”
Jonas rolled her eyes. “If you catch a couple fish, I’ll do my best to keep you alive another day.”
“Now I can thank your God.”
Jonas returned to the lump of dough, her stomach still in knots, but her shoulders relaxing. “Poor man, I should’ve sent you on a journey.”
With a chuckle, Obed started for the doorway. “Not a bad idea. You think Vitus would wait up while I got ready?”
Jonas watched her husband, with his broad shoulders and straight back, saunter into the sunlight. She glanced up at the rafters. “You may have created him—but I have to live with him.”
A new chapter of OldEarth Ishtar Encounter coming every Tuesday and Thursday.
“Trust starts with truth and ends with truth.” ~Anonymous