OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Six

—Mountains and Valleys—

Following in Their Footsteps

Ishtar and Tobia climbed hills, trudged through mountain passes, and marched day after hot, sticky day, rarely talking and never smiling.

When the outline of a village rose in the distance, Tobia pointed and cleared his throat. “Maybe, we’ll finally enjoy a little hospitality.”

A memory of the reception he received from Lud’s clan flashed through Ishtar’s mind. He stumbled, righted himself, and swallowed. “That’d be a welcome change.”

As they drew near, Tobia wrinkled his nose. “What’s that awful stench?”

Ishtar froze, then his arm jerked out and he gripped Tobia’s sleeve. “Wait here a moment.” He jogged ahead and circled the first hut. Oh, God! Bile rose in his throat as he stared at the remains of a massacre.

Stagnant blood pooled on the ground and splattered across the dwellings. Snarling dogs chewed on unnamed bones.

His stomach heaving, Ishtar ran to a grassy bank and soon retched the contents of his stomach.

Tobia jogged forward, laid his hand on Ishtar’s back, and turned away. His voice fell to a whisper. “I would too—if I had anything in me.”

Wiping his mouth, Ishtar clenched his jaw and straightened. “Sorry. I should be stronger—with all I’ve seen.” He shook his head. “But it was a shock.”

Tobia crept forward, his hand over his mouth and nose. “You think anyone’s still alive?”

Ishtar moved stealthily into the village. “There’s only one way to find out.”

As they searched through the primitive village, a groan rose in the air. Ishtar quickened his pace.

A skinny, toothless old man lay near a grass hut. A bloody cut on his leg, purple bruises on his face, and the way he cradled his left arm told the tale of recent events.

Tobia glanced around. “You know more about healing, so you can tend to him while I see if I look for others.”

Ishtar knelt at the old man’s side and helped him to sit up.

The old man snatched at Ishtar’s sleeve. “Water!”

A jug near a doorway caught Ishtar’s eye. He grabbed it and jogged around the village, a sour taste still burning in his mouth. A creek bubbled in the distance. He filled the jug, slaked his own thirst, and returned to the old man.

The old man’s hands shook as he slurped great mouthfuls. He wiped his lips with the back of his trembling hand and nodded. “Thank you.”

“What’s your name?”

“Wael. I was the patriarch of this ruined village.”

Leading a dark-skinned, wrinkled old woman and another old man, Tobia wandered back to Ishtar. “I found a few others too weak to rise, but with water and food, they’ll soon recover.”

Ishtar passed the jug to the newcomers and stood, surveying the scene. “Raiders must’ve killed the men and taken the women and children.”

Tobia pointed to the rummy-eyed elders crouching near at hand. “Why leave them?”

Ishtar shrugged. “They’re no threat and no use. It was easier to get what they wanted and leave.”

One old woman groaned. “I wish I were dead.”

Wael shook his head as he surveyed the bodies shriveling in the sun. “Who’ll bury them?”

Ishtar glanced at Tobia, and they shared an understanding gaze.

~~~

Tobia relished the cool breeze of evening. Rubbing his aching back, he returned from the burial duty and stood before the strongest of the old women. He wiped his sweaty brow. “We need something to eat.”

Her limbs shaking, the old woman rose and limped to a ramshackle hut on the outskirts of the village. Glancing aside, she peered at Tobia. “My name’s Olna, and I be the oldest living member of the clan…not much to boast of now, I know. But—” She ambled inside.

Tobia waited, rubbing grit from his eyes.

Wood scraped across dirt and a labored grunt rose.

“If you want to eat, come help me, boy.”

Tobia crossed over the threshold and found Olna leaning on a sturdy table.

“Move it over there.” She pointed to the east wall.

Dutifully, Tobia shoved the table aside and watched Olna rip a covering of wood from the back wall. From a deep hole, she tugged a large, tightly woven basket. Tobia gripped the handle and pulled it into the light. “What’s this?”

“Our salvation.” Olna grinned a nearly toothless smile. “I’ve seen my share of attacks, and we old women know to keep precious things well hidden.”

Flipping back the basket lid, Tobia’s heart sang. Uncounted packets lay before his eyes like a sparkling stream to a thirsty man. He lifted one and unwrapped the leaves. Inside, grain the color of honey glistened, sending his stomach into spasms and his mouth-watering. “Thank God.”

Olna nodded. “And you can thank me, too, while you’re at it. No one remembers the old ways and tucks good food aside for bad times—no one but Old Olna.”

Tobia wrapped his arm around the old woman and gently hugged her shoulder. “I thank you, indeed.”

~~~

Ishtar clasped his hands before his face and pondered the melancholy assembly before him. They were fed for the moment. But their slim resources would not last long. He peered at Olna as she perched on a bench outside her family hut, her hands still, and her gaze unfocused. “What’ll you do now, Olna?”

Olna’s head lifted a fraction. “What is there now but to die?”

Three old men and two other women crouched around a meager fire. Wael shook his finger at her. “Die then, old woman, but the rest of us” —he waved at other survivors— “we’ve a mind to live yet a little longer.”

Shrugging, Olna turned her gaze to the food basket. “You go on then, Wael, and farm the land, scare up some meat, and pick rations to last us through the season.”

Frowning, Wael rose and shuffled to a hut. He grabbed the shovel leaning against the wall. “I’ll start now. Don’t think I can’t.”

Ishtar rose and glanced at Tobia, who wrapped a wet cloth around the injured arm of one old man. “You won’t survive here, alone. You’ll have to come with us.”

Olna shook her head. “I don’t know that I can leave them…” She peered at the mounds in the distance. “You buried them, but someone should watch over their remains and pray for their spirits.”

Wael leaned on the shovel, his eyes glistening. “They would want us to survive.” He slapped the shovel. “What else did they fight for…but to have someone live…and remember them?”

Tobia stepped forward. “We’ll place markers around the mound so that anyone coming through will know of them. Though many perished, they were not forgotten.”

Ishtar rose and stepped toward the first hut. “We’ll leave tomorrow. But before then, let’s gather everything useful—anything you wish to take.” He glanced at the setting sun. “Time passes, and we need to move on.”

Tobia bit his lip. “Where do you think the raiders have gone?”

Ishtar sucked in a deep breath. “That’s what I’m afraid to find out.”

~~~

Tobia shared the last of the grain with Olna and the assembly on the third evening of their journey. Everyone settled around a small fire, exhausted after a hard day’s march through thick grass under a warm sun.

Olna chuckled as she swished the grains in her mouth, softening them before swallowing.

Startled, Tobia nudged her with his shoulder. “What’s so funny?”

After wiping her lips, Olna smiled and stared at the pink horizon. “My granddaughter loved to sit in my lap and hear the old stories. She was never content until I told at least three.” She lifted three fingers to clarify and shook her head, her grin fading. “Ay, but there’s no one to remember them now.”

With a sigh, Tobia shrugged. “Perhaps you can tell them to our children. Though they belong to another clan, we’re all related in some measure, created by the same God. The stories belong to all of us—do they not?”

Tears slipped down the old woman’s face. “But there’s few of us old ones left. Those brutes will attack the next village soon.”

Jerking upright, Tobia glanced from Ishtar back to the woman. “You know where they’re heading?”

“Though they spoke poorly, they questioned us about the nearest clans. We refused to answer…until forced. But the dogs learned what they wanted. This final conquest will be their greatest triumph, they said—”

Rising, Ishtar stepped closer, knelt, and peered into the old woman’s eyes. “What direction?”

Olna shrugged. “We’re following in their footsteps, I think.” Heaving a miserable sigh, she shuddered. “They’re far from their homeland…but the leader said they’d soon turn back.” She wiped away her tears. “Won’t be soon enough for those in their path.”

Tobia gripped Ishtar’s shoulder. “Could they be heading—?”

Ishtar shook his head. “There’s not much between us and home—nothing to turn them aside.”

Tobia leapt to his feet, his stomach churning. “We must warn them!”

Meeting Tobia’s gaze, Ishtar nodded. “Yes, we must.”

Heart pounding, Tobia reached for his staff. “I’ll leave right away.”

Ishtar grabbed his arm. “You were lost and starved, wandering in the desert not long ago.” He glanced at the old people hunch-shouldered and clearly afraid. “They trust you—they need you.” He retrieved his own staff. “I’ll go.”

A ripple of terror washed over Tobia. “But, Ishtar, you’re the enemy—remember?”

With a clenched jaw, Ishtar faced the setting sun. “Not anymore.”

Barely controlling his trembling limbs, Tobia watched Ishtar sprint into the diminishing horizon. Vitus’ face rose like a specter in his mind. Tears blinded him.

Olna patted his arm. “He’s a strong man, that one. Don’t worry, he’ll be safe.”

Tobia’s throat constricted. “It’s not him I’m worried about.”

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” ~T. S. Eliot

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Four

—Desert—

God Help Me

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

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

“What happened to Vitus?”

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

“Both.”

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

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

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

“Was I not kind enough to Vitus?”

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

Ishtar met his gaze. “Yes?”

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

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

~~~

Ishtar entered Matalah’s tent and bowed low.

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

Ishtar and Tobia stopped and turned.

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

Ishtar dropped his gaze, a throbbing ache welling inside.

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

Ishtar kissed her hands.

With another bow, she turned and hurried away.

Tobia sighed and started forward.

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

~~~

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

Gilbreth reciprocated the hug with equal intensity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I won’t go without you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They must be strong people.”

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

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

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

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

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

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No Reasonable Cause

“What the hell just happened?” Joe knew his blood pressure had risen to dangerous heights, but there was no way he was going to back down. He had to have an explanation, even if there was no reasonable cause in sight.

“Well, sir…” The younger, slimmer man, somewhere in his twenties, rubbed his gloved hands together, probably attempting to maintain circulation in the biting January wind. He looked at the overpass. “Looks like some ice just flew off and smacked into your windshield.”

Joe returned his gaze to his minivan packed to the brim with his family, an insanely hyperactive dog, and two miniature palm trees his wife, in a spirit of well-I-can’t-just-say-no-now-can-I? had accepted from her grieving sister who was inundated with funeral plants after the untimely death of her husband in a railroad accident.

“I have a cousin who’ll come out and fix that windshield in a jiffy. He’s pretty close by, and his rates are reasonable.”

A throb jumped from Joe’s heart to his head. His wife looked like she had been turned to stone, and the dog, with his tongue hanging out, scrabbled at the back window like a deranged con artist trying to escape a long prison sentence.

Joe jogged forward, slid open the back door, and barked at his eldest son. “Cody, take him for a walk but don’t go too far.”

Slowly, one lanky jean-clad leg appeared, quickly followed by four shaggy doglegs, and then the rest of the desperate hound. The complete boy followed in due course. The boy stood on the roadside wide-eyed but calm. The dog, wild-eyed, lunged against the restraints of the synthetic blue leash.

The boy swept his gaze up and down the busy highway and then looked at his dad. “Where?”

Joe pointed to the metal rail dividing the opposite lanes of traffic. “Walk along that, but stay close. Don’t let Hunter go, or it’ll be the end of him.”

Joe ducked his head in through the open doorway and tapped the other two kids on their respective knees. “It’ll be okay, guys. No problems.”

His wife, Mary, sat stiff, facing forward, her shoulders rigid. The cracked windshield seemed to accent her solid form. He patted her shoulder and felt her collarbone. When did she get so thin? Joe spoke to the back of her head. “The guy outside said he knows someone who can fix the windshield, but it’s only broken on your side. I can see well enough to make it home.”

He wanted confirmation— “Yes, honey, that sounds good to me.” —would have been music to his ears. But she didn’t say anything. What? Like a big chunk of ice blowing off an overpass and smashing their windshield was his fault?

“It wasn’t my fault, you know.”

“We know, dad.” It was his middle kid, Taylor. She always took his part. Even when he didn’t deserve it. Like the time he forgot the roast in the oven, and Mary came home to a smoke-filled house with a cinder block for dinner. Taylor had insisted that it was roasting pan’s fault.

Mary had tossed both the blackened pan and the burned dinner in the trash and made peanut butter jelly sandwiches with tomato soup for dinner.

Joe considered her now. She didn’t need explanations, just the next step.

He, on the other hand, wanted to smack something. Or someone.

He looked back at the skinny guy still rubbing his hands together, closed the car door, and stepped over. “Look, I think we’ll be okay.” He felt for his keys in his pocket and then remembered that they were still in the ignition. “It’s not like the car is out of commission or anything. It just cracked the windshield. We’ll make it home. I’ll have our guy in town take care of it tomorrow.”

The skinny guy seemed disappointed. He really wanted to help? Or did he get paid for referrals? Joe scratched his head. “I appreciate your stopping to check on us.” He stuck out his hand.

Skinny guy glanced aside, blinked, and then clasped Joe’s hand. “No problem. My sister was in a car accident last month. She and her husband. Dead. Newlyweds, too.” He shrugged. “Some things can’t be explained. But people can help. Sometimes.” He bobbed his head and jogged back to his car. With a quick wave, he darted inside and drove off.

Hound and boy reentered the family minivan, and Joe, with a last surveying glance at the cracked windshield, threw himself into the driver’s seat.

Relief flooded his system as the car rumbled to life. He glanced in the rearview mirror, offered a brave smile to his kids and the relieved hound, waited for an opening, and then merged into the late afternoon traffic. He ignored his wife.

As the last rays of the sun faded, and he made the turn onto the lane leading home, Mary’s voice startled Joe out of his reverie. He glanced into the rearview mirror. The kids seemed to have fallen asleep. Even the dog was snoring.

“He was right.”

Joe slackened the pressure on the gas pedal and let the car coast the last bit to their driveway. “How’s that?”

“The guy who tried to help. He couldn’t do anything. He couldn’t explain why the ice fell on our car, why his sister was killed. Why Kelly’s husband died.”

Joe frowned. “He didn’t even know—”

Mary turned and faced him. Speared him with her gaze more like. “I have a point, here.”

Joe knew perfectly well that he wasn’t the sharpest blade in the cutlery drawer. His wife often sighed and merely shook her head when he missed some metaphysical point she was making. He needed to try to understand. He let the car come to a smooth stop in their driveway and squinted with intellectual concentration.

“You wanted to know what happened. Remember?”

“Yeah…”

“Well, we’ll never know exactly how the ice came to hit our car. But we do know that some decent guy tried to help us.”

Joe swallowed. “Yeah?”

“And perhaps that’s enough.”

For her, maybe. But he had every intention of starting an investigation of overpasses and the number of icicles that fell and hit passing cars. Still, if it worked for her… “If it makes you happy, honey.”

She shook her head and smiled as she unbuckled. “You may figure out how to stop icicles from falling from overpasses…but you won’t figure out why bad things happen.”

Joe flipped his seat buckle off his shoulder and glanced back at his kids waking from sleep. He chewed his lip and then leaned over and spoke in a soft undertone. “No. But my job is to keep my family safe. And your job—” he stepped out and pulled open the back door, moving aside for the dog’s explosion from the car.

Mary emerged from the passenger side and peered at her husband. Waiting.

“You make the best of the situation. No matter what.”

The kids straggled to the house. A tired yawn escaped the youngest as she leaned on Taylor. Cody chased the dog to the backyard.

Myriads of stars twinkled from a black sky. The frozen air tingled Joe’s fingers and nose. He exhaled a frosty breath as he met his wife in front of their minivan. He wrapped his arm around her waist. “You need to eat more. You’re getting thin.”

She snuggled into his shoulder. “I’ll make dinner tonight, and you can deal with the car—and underpasses—in the morning.”

Joe’s heart settled into a peaceful rhythm. “Makes sense to me, honey.”

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Three

—Mountains and Stone City—

Beyond Mere Barbarism

Eoban plodded behind Luge. Two of Luge’s men flanked him on either side, while Obed and Barak trailed behind. Dark pine trees shaded their path, though bright sunlight filtered through in splotches and slashes. Shadows and light chased each other among the overarching branches. Suddenly, the line of trees stopped abruptly as if a decree had forbidden them beyond an invisible point.

The men crossed the line in silence, leaving the cool green ceiling and the soft mats of brown needles behind.

Obed hissed a deep breath between his lips. “Here comes the hard part.”

Luge tromped ahead over gravelly soil, his gaze cast down, his brows wrinkled.

Barak, too, strode forward but looking ahead, not down. A scowl rose across his forehead, warning of unnamed trouble.

As they wedged themselves between great shoulders of the mountains, Eoban noticed every detail of his surroundings. The sun grew bright and hot, and he wiped away the sweat beading on his face. All bird song faded into the background, leaving an oppressive silence, except for the scuffling of their feet over loose sand. Vultures circled overhead, sending a shiver over his arms. He swallowed. We should go back. But he knew he wouldn’t. He couldn’t.

Barak stumbled.

Eoban turned. “You all right?”

“Thinking of home.”

Frowning, Eoban waved a dismissive hand. “Not a good idea.”

Obed jogged forward, a flush rising over his face. “Not a good idea?” He jabbed Eoban’s shoulder. “You’d advise a married man not to think about his wife and children?”

Eoban picked up the pace, nearly running into Luge. He shrugged Obed away. “No use tormenting himself. He’ll get home when he gets home.” Eoban stopped short. “Besides, I thought you wanted to see fresh lands…experience new things.”

A sparkle glinted in Obed’s eyes. “I do. But that doesn’t mean I’m rude to others.”

Eoban glanced and held Barak’s gaze. “You’re really all right?”

Barak shrugged. “I was tormenting myself.” He wiped his brow and glanced ahead. “How much further?”

Luge, flanked by his men, stopped in the distance. He pointed ahead.

Eoban, Obed, and Barak hustled closer.

They stood, enchanted, and peered over a valley shimmering white and gold in the brilliant summer light. A vast blue expanse stretched over rippling waves of sand.

Set on a distant hill, a walled stone city rose into the sky like a child’s toy ready to be plucked from the earth.

Luge set his jaw, his gaze never straying from the city. “Let’s eat before we seal our fate.”

~~~

Eoban patted his contented stomach as he padded over the sand to the main gate.

Crowds bustled through the narrow entrance with guards asking questions and checking wares. Thick, rectangular open windows in the upper stories built directly into the wall allowed Eoban to perceive new depth to the city. Flashes of colored clothing swept beyond the gate. Glimpses of tables piled high with trade goods set his heart pounding.

Like an exuberant child, Eoban led the way, with Luge and his men falling behind Obed and Barak.

Armed soldiers dressed in long tunics and carrying spears strutted down narrow alleyways crisscrossing the main artery through town.

A cacophony of voices—men calling their wares, women hustling noisy children, goats bleating, birds squawking—tingled Eoban’s ears.

Luge’s labored breathing warned of his anxious state of mind, so Eoban stopped and waited for him to catch up.

Obed hurried next to his clansman and clutched his sleeve like an over-excited child.

Eoban pulled free. “Would you let me be? I feel like my mother is trying to keep me tied to her skirt.”

Obed released Eoban’s sleeve, his wide eyes roaming the scene. “Sorry, I didn’t—It’s just . . .”

“You’ve hardly ever traveled, remember? I’m the one who talked you into this.” A chuckle bubbled inside. “Think of what you’d have missed if you stayed at home.” Eoban surveyed the bustling crowds. “It’ll take every bit of our skills to describe this.”

Obed shook his head. “No one’ll believe us.” He turned in a circle, his arms flapping at his sides. “We’d have to invent new words.”

Barak swung his bag high over his shoulder and leaned toward Eoban. “Question is—how are we going to search this city and not attract attention to ourselves?”

With a splutter, exasperation killed Eoban’s joy. “Do I have to show you everything? Come on. Do what I say and don’t talk too much!”

Obed exchanged an uneasy glance with Barak.

Luge dropped his gaze, groaning.

A burly guard started forward, his eyes narrowing into hard glints. “Where’re you from, and where’re you bound?”

Huffing like an overwrought trader ready for hearth and home, Eoban threw back his shoulders and puffed out his chest. “I’ve been in the mountains and am returning home with my goods.” He waved at Luge, his men, Obed, and Barak.

The glint in the soldier’s eyes testified to his suspicious nature. “Why aren’t they tied?”

Eoban leaned in and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “They’re terrified of me. Already whipped one for rudeness.” He tilted his head in Obed’s direction.

The guard chewed on this, glanced at Eoban’s empty hands, and considered the assembly. “They hardly look fit to trade—much less escape.” After scratching the side of his jaw, he spat on the ground not far from Eoban’s feet.

Eoban clenched his jaw.

Another guard ambled near and called out. “Better hurry or Gerard’ll give your rations to the dogs.”

With a quick wave, the guard sent Eoban on his way and marched along the wall.

Eoban marched forward, grinning. He glanced at Obed. “See that wasn’t so—”

Suddenly, a piping voice called out from among the raucous din. “You’re too late if you want to sell your wares today!” A chubby, red-cheeked youth weaved through the crowd, a grin plastered on his round face.

Turning to his new advisory, Eoban thrust his palm over his heart. “Me? Sell? Oh no, I’ve just bought these prizes. I’m looking for a place to rest for the night. You wouldn’t know of any decent accommodations?”

The boy’s eyes widened. “They aren’t even bound. How are you going to keep slaves all night?” He glanced around. “Where’re your men?”

Eoban attempted to pat the boy’s head, but the youth kept his distance. “I know how to manage my own property. I’ll tie them up good and tight.”

“With what?”

A storm brewing in his chest, Eoban boomed a hearty laugh. “Stop worrying! I’ll manage.” He glared at the boy. “Now, what about a place to rest?”

“You’ll pay?” The boy’s gaze measured Eoban appreciatively.

“Everything you deserve. I assure you.” Eoban glanced from Obed to Barak. “Just point me in the right direction.” The boy led them through crooked passages to a wide street and a wine seller’s door. “My father lives here. He’ll put you up for the night if you have something worthy to offer.” His gaze roved over the assembly. He pointed at Barak. “How about that one there? My father needs a new man, someone who’ll survive his beatings.”

Barak glared in mute fury.

Eoban rubbed his hands together and offered his most ingratiating smile. “Well…that might be a possibility. If he gives me any trouble tonight, we’ll work something out.”

Barak lifted his hand. “I’m not going to—”

Luge suddenly lunged forward. “My son! I see my son!”

Eoban twisted around, scanning the bustling throng.

Barak unceremoniously shoved the boy to the side and nudged Luge forward. “Go! Follow him.” He glanced at Eoban. “Find you later.”

Eoban spluttered.

The youth’s face blazed.

Luge and Barak darted into the crowd.

The boy cupped his hands around his mouth and screamed. “Runaway! Runaway!”

Plastering his hand over the boy’s mouth, Eoban waited until Luge and Barak were out of sight. He pulled his hand away and wiped it on his tunic, peering at the boy. “Sorry, but I’d rather you not tell anyone about my…embarrassing situation. I know those men. They’ll be back.”

The boy glared, a flush working up his face and his hands perched on his hips.

Eoban leaned in and met the boy’s glare head-on. “They want to see their families again.” He shrugged like an old hand in the slave business. “The big man often thinks he sees his son, but the other one knows to bring him back.” Pursing his lips, he glanced at sign decorated with purple grapes hanging over the wine seller’s door.

The boy’s eyes narrowed, but he bowed in exaggerated friendship. “Certainly. Let me introduce you to my father. He’ll enjoy hearing all about your adventures—and slaves who run away and come back of their own accord.”

~~~

Eoban awoke from a deep slumber, scratching his tousled hair and rubbing sleep from his eyes. By the stars, I thought I’d died and— A cooing sound turned his attention. He rose from his pallet and peered at the nearby figures. Snoring affirmed what he already suspected. The father and son were sleeping. Tiptoeing, he slipped out of the wine seller’s house.

After rounding the corner, he called. “Barak?”

Barak hissed. “Here.”

Like a blind man, Eoban reached out and slapped Barak’s arm. “Where’ve you been? I had to make up a thousand tales to tell that fool of a boy and his father. I thought they’d get tired and fall asleep like normal people, but no. They wanted nothing more than to stay up half the night and hear me tell one lie after another.”

Barak snorted. “Should’ve felt right at home.”

“On the contrary. I wanted to bolt out their hospitable door and save my sanity. I’ve never been asked so many stupid questions in all my life.” Eoban’s voice simpered as he clasped his hands. “‘How many wives do you have? Where do your ancestors sleep? Have you built your tomb yet? What artisans do you employ?’ I would’ve liked to build their tombs—”

“Shhh!” Barak waved like a bat ready for takeoff. “Thank you for sharing. I’m fine. Your concern for my welfare is heartwarming. So glad you enjoyed yourself while I risked my life reuniting a father and son.”

Mild surprised caught Eoban off guard. “Luge found his son?”

“Not at first. He did see a boy about the right size and age, but when we caught up, he realized it wasn’t the right boy. The boy did, however, know of a training ground. He’d also been taken from his family and was inclined to help us. At the training ground, we found a group of slaves, and Luge’s son was among them. We managed to get near enough to speak to him. It took an ingenious plot on my part and a great deal of luck, but we got his son separated from the others, and Luge stole him back. They’re heading to the mountain pass.” Barak gestured to the inn. “Tell his men to go after them.”

Muttering under his breath, Eoban returned inside, tiptoed to the back of the dwelling, shook Luge’s men awake, untied their ropes, and hustled them outside to Barak, who gave them instructions.

Returning to Barak’s side, Eoban propped his hands on his hips.

Barak stroked his chin. “You’ll have to come up with a few more lies to explain the loss of your slaves.”

Eoban clapped Barak on the shoulder. “Not if we leave now. I’m in no mood—”

“You’re forgetting someone.”

With more muttering, Eoban traipsed inside, untied Obed, and shoved him awake.

Once outside, the three jogged away.

Obed huffed as he trotted. “There’s a certain ironic freedom in being a slave, but would you mind telling me what’s going on? I’ve been tied up for hours.”

As the three men hurried along an empty thoroughfare, a streak of pink light appeared on the horizon. They turned right on a side street, jogged between myriad closed shops, and then at a wide intersection, turned left, searching for the main gate. Eoban clenched his jaw at the sight of people stirring at their doors.

Lanky dogs slunk to the shadows, as pigs, a loose goat, and a variety of scrawny hens scuttled out of their way.

As they entered a rougher, older part of the city, they slowed to a gentle amble.

Half-naked children appeared and stared through wide eyes. The stone streets turned to hard-baked clay, and the homes diminished to nothing more than waddle huts thrown up against the walls of the city.

Peasants in simple wool and leather garments shuffled by with downcast eyes.

Barak sighed. “I can breathe again.”

Eoban nodded through a huff. “I’ve been living in a nightmare. That father and son—”

Obed turned, his mouth dropping open. “You think you can judge them? I heard a great deal as I sat there tied up like a sack. These people have rituals for everything— traditions that go back through generations. Men support more than one wife, they make wonderful trade goods, and their building skills surpass—”

Eoban halted and stared at Obed.

Obed stared back.

Averting his gaze, Eoban pointed to a grove of trees hovering on the edge of a meandering stream, which flowed down a gentle slope. He started away. “There’s a good place. I’m going to get a drink and a rest before I deal with you.”

Obed laughed. “Everyone who doesn’t see the world through your eyes needs to be dealt with, is that it?”

Barak groaned under his breath.

Each man took a long drink and soon found a soft spot under a large spreading tree.

Obed propped his head on his arm and stretched his legs. “I heard what you told Eoban about Luge, but tell me, Barak, how did you manage to get the boy away?”

With a grin, Barak shrugged. “I hate to say. It was nothing really. I just asked him where we should meet, and he pointed out a place. As the moon rose, we went to the spot and waited. When he reappeared, we walked away.”

Obed frowned. “No one was watching?”

“No one dares to cross the desert. After a time of mourning, most people simply accept their fate. The chains weren’t so strong—just never tested.”

“You mean other slaves could have walked away, but they never tried?”

Barak nodded. “The strongest chains are in the mind.”

Shoving himself upright, Eoban clapped his hands free of dirt. “Well, that’s a good deed done. Now, Obed, I’ve a few words—”

Obed waved his hand in protest. “Spare us your judgments. So, you’re blind to the magnificence all around you, who cares?”

Feeling like he’d been slapped, Eoban rubbed his jaw. “You have a way of saying things that make the most peaceable man want to knock you down. I wonder how Jonas stands it.”

Obed grinned, darting a glance from Barak to Eoban. “She loves me.”

Eoban snorted. “That’s about what it would take!” He rose and stretched. “Still, I think it’s you who are blind.

These people are not great—”

Shooting to his feet, Obed jerked his hand in the direction of the city. “Have you no eyes?”

Eoban crossed his arms over his chest and glared. “The people who live there now are the recipients of other men’s intelligence and hard work. Slaves’ sweat and broken backs make their lives possible.” He stepped closer and peered narrowly at Obed. “They spend time comparing the softness of their clothes, how the colors strike their eyes, and how they feel when reclining on one pillow rather than another.” He lifted his hands as if imploring the sky to bear testimony. “Weak with madness, they are.”

“The city is well managed. There are guards and warriors in numbers beyond count defend them. They have a well- developed system of trade, buildings for communal storage, magnificent homes for the rulers, and—if you didn’t notice—an ornate temple for their god.” Obed shook his head. “I doubt our clans could do as much over generations.”

Eoban dismissed Obed with a wave. “Why would I want to be like them? Did you learn nothing from Neb and Ishtar? No society can live long when it’s built on cruel force.”

“Cruel force? You know how many clans live in idle waste and make useless war on each other. Here, at least every man builds to some purpose.”

Eoban shook his head as if to clear water from his ears. He turned, peering at Barak while pointing at Obed. “Who am I talking to?”

Barak frowned at his clasped hands. “I’m not sure.”

Obed laughed and stomped away. “Stop! So, I’m impressed with these people! I’m amazed that you two are too blind to appreciate the grandness of their design and execution. This city values its artists. They can ponder such novelties such as clothing design and pillow comfort because they have time to do so. They’re not sweating for every mouthful or worrying about how to keep their children alive. They’ve moved beyond the barbarism of mere survival.”

Barak straightened and stared at Obed’s back. “There is much to be said for the ‘barbarism of mere survival.’ I work hard to feed my children, but I still have time to think. Is it acceptable to you that this city’s grandness is paid for by the forced separation of a father and son? Would you let Onia be taken so that others might enjoy their art?”

Obed leaned on the tree and chewed his lip. “You’re right in this point, of course. But you can’t deny—they’ve built some marvelous works.”

Eoban snorted. “Anything built on blood is bloody, and I don’t admire bloody things!”

Barak lifted his hands. “We have yet to look earnestly for Ishtar in the city. One more day, and we’ll head home.”

Obed glanced at the towering temple that rose above the city walls. He sighed. “Agreed.”

Eoban felt his stomach fall into a black pit. “Agreed.”

“They have a Right to censure, that have a Heart to help: The rest is Cruelty, not Justice.”  ~William Penn

New chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty

To Be The One

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

Obed, sprawled on the ground, lay stunned.

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

“Stop!” Amin tried to wrench free.

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

Grumbling erupted from the other warriors.

“I am Luge. I decide!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An owl hooted in the distance.

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

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

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

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

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

Barak choked.

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One eyebrow rising, Eoban glanced at Barak.

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

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

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

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

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

Luge twisted the spear out of Amin’s grasp.

Amin clawed at Luge, wrestling for his weapon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luge turned and frowned.

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

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

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

To Be Content

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Honey!”

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

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

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

“You’re a lifesaver, dear!”

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So what do you want?”

“A friend first. Then we’ll see.”

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

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

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

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

“Gerry asked me to marry him.”

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

“Should I say yes?”

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

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

“What do you want, Janet?”

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

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

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

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

“Discontent?”

“Yeah.”

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

“Can you make a life with him?”

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

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

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

Novels by A. K. Frailey

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Nineteen

—Mountain and Desert—

Bury the Dead

Tobia glanced over his shoulder and shuddered.

As if tied to an invisible thread, Vitus traipsed blindly behind Tobia’s footsteps. It appeared as if he had no other purpose in life than to keep in step with his companion.

Tightening his jaw, Tobia changed direction suddenly, but Vitus, apparently seeing through his unseeing eyes, stuck close, like a chick to its mother. “Seven days of this. I’ll soon go mad.” Tobia stopped and shaded his eyes, surveying the mountainous landscape. He licked his parched lips. A sound turned his gaze.

Trickling water gurgled over the never-ending buzz of insects.

Tobia sighed and closed his eyes a moment in relief. “Thank God.” He rushed forward, scurried around a boulder, and encountered a tiny waterfall and a thin green patch growing from the mountainside. After slapping water into his parched mouth, he unslung his water bag from his shoulder and laid it on its side. Still licking his lips, he watched fresh clean water flow into it. Then he fell back against the white cliffside and drank a long slurping draught to his heart’s content.

After wiping his mouth, he peered up.

There stood Vitus, heaving deep breaths, stoop-shouldered, his clothes stained with sweat. His lips cracked.

“Oh, God, yes.” Tobia led Vitus to a shady spot and pulled the water bag from the man’s shoulder. After filling it, he put it to Vitus’ lips, praying that he’d drink willingly. Some days, Vitus let the water pour down his chin like a naughty child.

With his trembling hands limp at his side, Vitus tipped back his head.

Tobia directed the water into his mouth.

Vitus slurped and drank readily, an occasional grunted moan escaping his lips.

Tobia eyed the man. “That enough?”

Vitus didn’t answer. He never answered. He just stood and stared vacantly ahead.

With a quick shake, Tobia lifted the waterskin again and held it against Vitus’ mouth, but this time Vitus didn’t respond. The water merely dribbled down his chin. In resignation, Tobia slung the water skin bag over Vitus’ head and laboriously gathered his own bags. He didn’t have much left. Just a few trade items and what scraps of goat meat he had saved from their last meal.

Trudging along an animal track, they wound northward. When they finally reached the other side of the mountain, Tobia felt relieved, as if he had actually accomplished something. “There’s surely a clan around here somewhere…”

But there never was. Another bend, another vista, another trail to follow. But no sign of another clan.

Struggling forward, they passed between the mountains and wandered downward into a drier, desolate land where fine sand shifted underfoot.

Tobia stopped and wiped his brow. “The blind leading the blind.”

The land stretched before him as a vast panorama of open space. The intense blue sky spread wider than he had ever imagined possible.

In exhaustion, they stopped in the shadow of a high slope and ate the last of their food. They soon gulped the last of their water. Tobia’s heart clenched. He searched but found no stream or watercourse in sight.

With no other options, Tobia rose and started forward, always toward the falling sun.

Soon, his tongue felt thick and his lips bled. He glanced aside at Vitus. The man drooped like a wilted flower, his eyes as vacant as ever. “At least, he’s not complaining.” But a headache pounded in the back of Tobia’s head, and he groaned.

A dark speck in the distance caught his attention. Bracing his hand on his forehead as a shield against the light, he squinted. He knew it was useless, but he felt the need to speak out loud as if it might light the spark that would ignite Vitus’ intelligence. “What’s that?”

Forms wavered ahead.

Tobia forced himself to stand, though his legs begged to crumple. Dread warred with excitement, raising nausea from his middle. He glanced at Vitus. “How am I going to explain you?”

The shapes of men on plodding camels grew larger and more distinct, heading slightly to the north of his statuesque-like position, but suddenly they altered course and headed directly toward him.

Sweat trickled down Vitus’ flushed face, his back bent low, and his hands hung limp at his sides.

Draped from head to foot with a thin white material, the figures appeared to be heading someplace but not anxious to get there.

Tobia stepped closer to Vitus.

A tall, thin man with a dark complexion and black hair halted before them. “Hail, stranger. My master would like to know what brings you out in the heat of the day without beast to carry you or friends to protect you.”

Tobia cleared his parched throat, but his voice sounded raspy even to his ears. “We’re lost. My guide here” —he pointed to Vitus— “has been injured, and I am not fit to lead anyone—even myself.” He tried to smile but failed.

The men, looming so high above him, exchanged amused glances. The old man beckoned another to his side. This companion, his lower face covered in a cloth, appeared younger and more robust, though from his narrowed-eyed expression, Tobia sensed the wariness of an experienced warrior.

Tobia offered a respectful bow and nearly tumbled over with the effort.

The shrouded figure spoke in a husky voice that tingled in Tobia’s ears. “You’re not the first to get lost in these lands. But don’t despair; it’s possible to survive and even grow stronger through the journey.” He waved with a light flit of his hand to the north. “We’re meeting the sons of my patriarch here, but it may not be a happy reunion, or we’d take you with us.”

Desperation rose to a shriek in Tobia’s mind.

The man leaned forward. “Perhaps we could direct you home again. Where do you live?”

Griping Vitus’ arm, Tobia struggled to stay on his feet. “If I knew that, I wouldn’t be here. Please, we’re exhausted and near death. Take us as slaves if need be, but don’t abandon us here.”

The old man nudged his mount forward. “We’ll assist you then, for it would be offensive to God to do any less.” He commanded his men to assist Tobia and Vitus to mount.

Like a weak child, Tobia straddled the camel behind the shrouded figure, and Vitus was set behind the old man.

As they started forward, the old man turned to Tobia. “Your name?”

“I am called Tobia, son of Obed of the Grassland, though we are now in alliance with the clan of Barak.”

The shrouded figure turned suddenly, his eyes widening.

Tobia frowned, and his pounding head swam in the heat. He closed his eyes and prayed for mercy.

~~~

Tobia awoke to a delicious coolness caressing his aching body. He propped himself on one elbow and glanced around. In the darkness, the light of a full moon slanting into the tent aided his sight. Sleeping forms lay near. He leaned closer and recognized Vitus’ emaciated frame and his familiar snoring broken by short bursts of blowing air.

After throwing off the light blanket, Tobia rose and started toward the open flap. He stretched and licked his dry lips. Rubbing his arms, he emerged from the tent into the chilly night air.

A silent figure stood alone, peering into the starry sky.

Stepping quietly, he made no discernible noise, yet the still form shifted as he drew closer. They stood together for a moment in silence. The stars, clustered in milky splashes, spread wide across the sky.

Without turning, the figure spoke. “I was hoping you’d awake before the others. The sun will rise soon, and then we must accomplish our journey.”

“You wish to speak to me?”

“I do, very much, though I doubt you’ll feel the same.”

Tobia swallowed a sudden fear.

The figure turned and faced Tobia. “Don’t you know me?”

Tobia stood his ground though his legs trembled. “Your voice sounds familiar, but so much has happened in these past months—I might not recognize my own family.”

The figure unwrapped the cloth that hid his face. Ishtar opened his hands, palms out, as if in surrender.

A jolt surged through Tobia’s body. “I thought you were dead.” He choked. “I didn’t mean—” He clenched his hands. “But no one could survive—”

Ishtar placed a gentle hand on Tobia’s shoulder and steadied him. “I did die. At least the man you knew died.” He let his hand drop to his side. “I am not the man I was.” His gaze returned to the horizon, now turning rosy with the hint of day.

Following Ishtar’s example and facing the new day, Tobia shuddered. “I’m glad to hear you say that. I couldn’t manage—” He glanced back to the tent where Vitus lay sleeping. “Another problem.”

“I didn’t say your problems are over. By coming with us, you join a doomed expedition—a father facing death by his sons’ treachery.” A bitter chuckle rose in Ishtar’s throat. “Fate never ceases to amaze me.”

Tobia’s eyes widened. “I once believed that growing up meant I would have more say over my life, but I was wrong.” He pointed to the tent. “But what about Vitus?” Stepping closer, he gripped Ishtar’s sleeve. “He can neither run nor fight. He’s as helpless as a child. Is there no safe place for him?”

Ishtar glanced aside. “I’ve prayed for an escape, but I’ve found no other path than the one we’re on.”

The murmuring of men’s voices turned their attention. Matalah’s men pointed to the horizon.

Tobia and Ishtar stared as a cavalcade of hazy silhouettes rose into view.

Ishtar licked his lips, and Tobia held his breath. “Who?”

Suddenly, from the right and left, armed warriors sped into view, surrounding the approaching group, thrusting their spears and swinging clubs.

Matalah’s men shouted and chattered, pointing at the battle playing out before their eyes in the distance.

Tobia frowned. “Are those men being attacked?” He swallowed hard and peered at Ishtar. “Are we being attacked?”

Folding his arms, his legs spread and braced, Ishtar watched the scene. A slow smile crept across his face.

Shouts rang through the air.

Matalah sprang from his tent and gripped Ishtar’s arm. “Must they rush the hour? Is there not time enough for our destruction?”

His voice low and controlled, Ishtar glanced at his patriarch. “They are the ones being destroyed.”

Matalah leaned forward, squinting into the rays of the rising sun, his lips compressed and his jaw ridged.

Suddenly, the lead rider turned and faced his pursuers. The pursuers encircled their quarry. A quick spear thrust missed its target. More spears loosed as camels were driven into the fray. Warriors swung clubs with abandon, many finding their mark and sending men tumbling from their mounts.

Tobia, Ishtar, Matalah, and his faithful men watched in heart-stopping silence.

Men and beasts lay sprawled on the desert floor. Only the loudest shouts and clinks of battle could be heard as the shapes rose and fell.

Matalah’s face drained of all color. “My sons! Are they among them? I must know!” He staggered toward his camel.

Ishtar gripped his arm, holding him back. “This morning your sons wanted to destroy you, but now you to rush to their rescue?”

Matalah tried to shake free. “They are flesh of my flesh. I cannot stand by and watch them be murdered.”

Ishtar glanced from Tobia to Matalah. “I’ll go. Stay with the boy.” Without waiting for further argument, Ishtar swung on his mount and trotted into the distance.

The battle appeared to end as quickly as it had begun. Ishtar approached slowly. A thick man from the second group advanced and a discussion ensued.

After a few moments, Ishtar broke away and turned back, though now the thick warrior followed close beside him.

Tobia rubbed his dry lips. “What does it mean?”

The old man stared in mute misery.

Ishtar drew near with his companion close behind.

The tall, heavyset man wearing a blood-smeared cloak stopped before the small group. As he descended from his camel, he nearly slipped but jerked himself upright. He strode straight to Matalah and bowed his head in respect.

His whole body trembling, Matalah returned the bow.

“My friend, it is my sad duty to report the death of your eldest son at my hands. I did not wish it but was forced to such action. If I did not act, your sons planned to kill me and my family.” He took Matalah’s hand in his own, pressing it firmly. “I do not hold his crimes at your door. I feel only your shame and loss.”

Matalah’s head dropped to his chest, tears trickling down his burnished cheeks. “I’m glad it was you who administered justice, for you would be neither weak in the face of a necessary duty nor excessive in revenge.”

Tobia stepped into the background.

Ishtar reached out and gripped his shoulder, holding him steady. He looked to the warrior. “Where are the others?”

“They, too, were set upon by neighboring clans.” He shook his head in shared sorrow and glanced at the old man. “I do not believe you have many sons yet alive, Matalah. I am truly sorry for your loss.”

Matalah choked out his words. “They met their chosen end.”

~~~

Ishtar stood aside as the body of Matalah’s eldest son was brought and laid before them.

As the young man stained his garments with his own blood and his head lay twisted at an unnatural angle, so Matalah seemed to bleed tears while his body contorted in agony. “Take me from this earth! I no longer wish to inhabit the land of the living. I have failed, and my sons will not join us in the place of rejoicing.”

Ishtar nudged Tobia forward. “Come, we’ll do this together and bury those past healing.”

~~~

Tobia swept his sweaty hair out of his eyes and leaned on his shovel.

Ishtar set a marking stone in place before the grave mound and stepped back. His long black hair clung to his cheeks and neck as drops of sweat trickled down the side of his face.

“What next?”

Ishtar glanced at the high sun. “We’ll take Matalah home.” He shrugged. “His wife and surviving children await his return.”

“If I knew nothing of you, I’d think you a marvel among men for what you’ve done for your friend. Because I know what you’ve been through, I’m even more amazed.”

Ishtar turned and stared at the flames of a fire that still burned in the remains of their camp.

Tobia followed his gaze and grew uneasy as Ishtar walked to the fire pit, seemingly entranced by the colorful flames. With his foot, he scattered the coals. “Don’t be impressed with me, for I’ve given back but a tiny portion of the kindness Matalah has shown me.”

Tobia peered back at Vitus, who stood aside staring vacantly into space as Matalah’s men readied for the return journey. “We buried the dead. But what will I do with the living?”

“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”
~Mother Jones

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