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-Five

—Stone City—

Outside the Walls

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

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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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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-One

A Natural Part of Motherhood

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

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

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

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

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

Milkan peered ahead and started a recount.

Jonas strode into view with Onia following behind.

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

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

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

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

Jonas shook her head. “No, not them.”

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

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

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

Namah closed her eyes. “Not again!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her children turned and gathered before her.

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

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

Onia stepped patiently to his mother’s side.

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

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

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

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

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

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter 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

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Eighteen

—Wilderness—

A Sinking Feeling

Eoban laughed as he slapped Barak on the back. “Just like old times! I remember hearing stories about the great cat hunt—” He yanked a tree branch out of his face. “And I’ve always wondered how you managed to survive. You must carry some special charm to keep you free from harm.”

Barak frowned and hoisted his pack over his shoulder as he climbed over a fallen log. “You hardly know the whole story, or you’d never say that I stayed free from harm. On that particular occasion, I was mauled by a ferocious cat and abandoned by my friends. Hardly a charming experience, I assure you.”

Eoban winked at Obed. “I’m sure that if Aram were here, he’d have a few details to add.”

“If Aram were here, he’d probably knock you on the head.”

Eoban burst out laughing. “Oh, how I wish he were here. He’d add a dash of excitement to our dreary wanderings.” Eoban turned just in time to have a branch slap him in the face. He swore, bringing a smile to Barak’s face.

Obed hustled past Eoban and gripped Barak’s shoulder in a brotherly fashion. “Don’t let him bother you. I remember the time I took Onias to the wilderness for a cure. It wasn’t easy, but we both returned better for it. There’s a great deal in the natural world that can benefit us.”

Amin jogged along behind, a frown building between his eyes. “You told Jonas that you didn’t believe—”

Obed turned around and walked backward, his eyes narrowing. “What?”

Amin quickened his step and brushed past Obed. “Oh, nothing. Just, Jonas told Namah that you couldn’t see anything beyond your reach.”

Obed swiveled around, his gaze following the boy. “You shouldn’t listen to women’s gossip. It’ll lead to something unpleasant.”

Silence ensued as the three tromped through the tree-filled hillside.

Amin bent his head and pursed his lips tight.

Eoban broke the heavy silence with a chuckle. “You remember Gimesh, Barak?” He gave Obed a friendly shove. “There’s a story worth retelling.”

Barak picked up speed.

They broke free of the trees and turned straight toward the summit of the hill. Eoban panted as he climbed. The air grew heavy and moist, sending perspiration slipping down his face.

Barak pointed ahead and nodded. “Eoban’s right. I’d never seen a man like Gimesh before.” He glanced aside. “You may not believe in unseen powers and miracles, Obed, but I don’t know how anyone could explain Gimesh’s sudden appearance. It was more than mere luck.”

Obed rolled his eyes. “I beg you, please don’t start. So a man appeared at an opportune moment and decided to help you. What’s so strange about that? It doesn’t take an act of God to have good luck, surely.”

Barak grinned. “If only you saw Gimesh!”

Once they reached the top, Eoban threw down his walking stick, bent over, his hands on his knees, and took long, slow breaths. “There’ll be time enough to chat about mysteries and miracles, but right now, let’s eat.” He glanced aside. “Obed hurried us on so this morning that I barely got a morsel in my poor, parched mouth.” He flopped onto the ground.

Amin laughed and then dropped to the ground in a fair imitation of Eoban.

Obed glanced at Barak and shook his head.

Sitting up and leaning against a tree, Eoban sighed in contentment. So far…so good.

Barak stood with his hands on his hips, much like a mother hen ready to scold her unruly brood. “I suppose it won’t do any good to mention that the sun will set soon, and there is no decent shelter around.” He swept his hand from side to side as if to emphasize his point. “No rocks or caves or—” Barak’s scowl deepened. “What’s that?”

Obed placed his packs in a neat, orderly pile. “What’s what?”

Barak pointed into the distance; a plain lay before them with the mountains as a backdrop. “Look over there. Is that a migrating tribe?” He glanced aside. “You know the people in these parts, Eoban?”

Amin’s eyes widened as he peered at Eoban.

Eoban slapped his forehead and ran his fingers down his face. “I knew people in these parts a long time ago, but things change. By the blazing sun, even the hills seem to move around. It could take weeks to locate a friendly clan.” He sniffed and rubbed his nose. “If they’re migrating, they have bigger worries than we do.”

Obed studied the distant tribe. “It might be wise to know who is traveling so close, especially as we have no real defensible—”

Eoban rummaged through his bag. “Defensible? What’re you worried about? You think someone’s going to attack us? Here?”

Obed shrugged. “It’s been known to happen.” He glanced at Barak. “And I doubt any miracle would save us.”

Amin turned on his side and perched his head on his hand, a scowl darkening his face.

Eoban rose with a groan, munching on a piece of stale bread. Sweaty and feeling rather put out by their attitude, he strode to Obed’s side overlooking the plain. “If Barak thinks a bird from the sky will rescue us from danger, I say good for him as long as he lets me sharpen my spear. After all, he might be right. But unless you see—” Scanning the horizon, every muscle in Eoban’s body froze. “You idiots! That isn’t a migrating clan—that is a war party!”

All eyes turned toward Eoban.

Obed lifted his hands. “We tried to tell you.”

Barak nodded. “We did.”

Amin scampered to his feet.

“Stop blathering and get your stuff. This is no place to stop and rest. What were you thinking? Didn’t you hear Amin sigh in consternation when you fools started complaining about your bellies? Act like men, would you?”

The war party below turned and started up the hill.

Eoban thrust his bags over his shoulder, helped Amin load up, and gripped the boy’s arm.

They all scrambled around to the far side of the hill and then slid their way down to the dusty plain.

Stark mountains rose up in the distance.

As they hurried across the barren land, long shadows loomed on their left. Dust rose in the wake of their footsteps. All afternoon, they trudged—marching, walking, stumbling, and limping. As the sun dropped near the horizon, they began to climb the slow, winding way up the mountainside.

At a steep juncture, Amin slipped backward, rose too quickly, offset his balance, and fell on his back. He cursed under his breath.

Hustling forward, Eoban extended his hand. “Hold on, Amin. You’re moving too fast for your elders. We don’t want anyone to think we’re running away.” He hefted Amin to his feet, but the boy jerked his arm free.

“I’m not running away. I am running to something.”

Obed pivoted on his heel and scowled. “Don’t take that tone—”

Barak lifted his hand in concession as he laid his bundles on the ground. “We all need a rest. Besides, we should discuss where we’re heading. Last I heard we were just going to look around these hills and perhaps up in the mountains a little way.” He glanced at Eoban. “You’re not thinking about going all the way to the mountains, are you?”

Obed stowed his things in a pile next to Barak’s and sat down. “We’re liable to kill ourselves, running around out here in the dark. We need a fire and some food. I’ll get a blaze going if we call it a night.”

Eoban nodded. “A fire out here won’t alert anyone. Make it a modest blaze, Obed.” He dug a stone out of his sandal and glanced at the boy.

Amin stood stoop-shouldered, still frowning, his bags high on his back.

“What’s bothering you, Amin?”

“We can’t go back until we find my father.”

Barak shook his head. “We don’t know when or if we’ll find him.” He waved Amin closer. “You know as well as anyone, Ishtar may be dead—”

Amin grimaced. “I know. But Caleb needs to know the truth.”

Obed snorted. “Oh, Caleb needs to know.”

Eoban flicked the stone at Obed. He turned and beckoned Amin closer. “A good meal will make us all feel better.” He glanced up. “Obed, start a fire, and I’ll take a look around. Maybe some delicious dinner is traipsing around these woods just waiting for us.” He squeezed Amin’s shoulder playfully. “You gather wood while Barak and I see what we can find.”

With a shrug, Amin nodded.

Barak ran his fingers through his hair as he surveyed the dim twilight. “It’s pretty dark out there. What do you think we’ll see besides glowing eyes surmising whether we’d make a decent meal?”

Eoban snorted. “Barak! You are embarrassing yourself.” He glanced at the boy. “Amin, don’t listen. Any animal that wants to come my way is welcome. I love meat of all kinds.”

Barak chuckled and rubbed his tired legs. “All right! But please don’t attack anything bigger than the two of us combined.”

Eoban snatched Obed’s spear and handed it to Amin. “I’ll leave you in charge.” He nodded, one warrior to another. “Protect those that need protecting.”

Amin took the spear with the hint of a grin.

Obed waved Eoban away and proceeded to clear a space for the fire.

Barak nudged Eoban with his spear. “Come on, Brave Hunter! It’s nearly dark, and every animal with decent hearing knows we’re here.”

The two moved into the twilight.

~~~

Amin watched Eoban and Barak traipse away with a sinking feeling in his chest. He shook himself and turned his attention to Obed.

After gathering a handful of tinder, Obed pulled out his flint and forced a spark. After a moment of smoldering, a flame broke to the surface.

Amin scampered to the edge of the small circle of light and gathered twigs. He bundled them into his arms and started back to the small blaze when a large, bronzed hand gripped his arm. Thrashing, he tried to escape but the hand gripped tighter. Suddenly, he found himself facing the torso of a giant. With a quick thrust, he was forced to turn around. He called out, but it was too late.

Not all those who wander are lost… ~J.R.R. Tolkien

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Seventeen

—Desert—

Shadows of the Past

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

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

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

Wasim nodded and turned away.

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

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

~~~

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

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

Contented, she ambled off in search of new pleasure.

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

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

Glancing away, Ishtar rebuffed the gesture.

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

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

Assam turned and frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ishtar followed more slowly, his heart pounding.

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

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

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

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

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

Ishtar followed as the sun touched the horizon.

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

Ishtar clasped his hands, his patience wearing thin.

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

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

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

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

“Just so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“And this seems honorable to you?”

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

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

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

“The sheep are mine.”

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matalah sighed. “Ever is it so.”

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

“God is gracious to those who repent—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ishtar understood the feeling.“

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)