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.”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

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 Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

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

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

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

Milestones

Milestones mark my place in life. I’m X many years old, graduated from such-and-such, married to so-and-so on a specific date and watched him die so many years later, gave birth to my children on appointed dates, grieved the loss of loved ones when and where, washed and dried twenty ka-billion loads of laundry, launched three careers, and savored countless peanut M & Ms.

Guess I’m done, eh? No need for another resolution. The umpteenth—“I’ll eat better, exercise more, practice charity, humility, self-control,” (We’re not referring to those M & Ms) or any other “I’ll-become-a-better-person-as-soon-as-I-get-it-planned-out-and-written-in-non-erasable (PDF?) format.

I sit in the park with this thought for a total of fifteen seconds and wonder why I’m not hyperventilating with joy. Doing Free-To-Be–Me cartwheels. Ignoring the indisputable fact that I’d appear deranged to the innocent folks walking their dogs.

Maybe because I’m not completely happy with the thought?

Err…that’s hardly in tune with the Love-Yourself-As-You-Are-So-You-Can Love-Others theme song I hear reverberating across the universe these days.

But then… (Yes, I am chatting to myself, and no one has said anything, so I think I’m okay for the moment.) I’m hardly ever completely happy. Really.

I have yet to become or meet anyone I think is absolutely perfect in every way, who can forgo the next life lesson stomping into the kitchen in the form of a confused child, or a comeuppance, appearing a lot like an irate boss with a hidden agenda, or the glory of a forgiving friend who remembers your birthday when you totally forgot theirs.

My life has always been about moving forward. Even when that “forward” ends up being a circle that meets up—a little chagrined—a couple of millimeters ahead of where I started.

Last year, I started dating for the first time since my husband died. Several dates and one almost relationship later, I’m only slightly wiser. I did learn some things. Some good. Some not so good.

Mostly, I realize once again that anything real comes in stages. Slowly. In relation to other things growing alongside, so everything can grow together in a healthy manner.

Like tomatoes for salsa. You have to start the seeds at the right time so they don’t get all spindly before the last frost signals real spring. And it’s a darn good idea to plan them so that the peppers ripen about the same week, or the tomatoes will rot, waiting for their culinary complements.

As a woman with kids, family connections, and life commitments, there is more to every human relationship than attraction, common interests, and shared goals.

Lots of people and circumstances to consider. And then there’s the reality of timing and hiking up that steep learning curve. Did I get an A+ on the last relationship lesson, or should I take remedial classes in self-awareness?

Allowing other people to have their say in the conversation makes what might otherwise seem impossible, quite possible. It’s the best defense before the big guns—I-got-to-get-it-done-by-this-date and it-should-look-like-this-when-I’m-done mentality shoots down relationships and ends conversations before they really get started.

So, my life is made of milestones. Resolutions. Learning curves. Timing and openness. If next year, I’m only a couple of millimeters ahead…again… Well, a step forward is a step forward—no matter how small.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

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 Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Seventeen

—Desert—

Shadows of the Past

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

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

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

Wasim nodded and turned away.

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

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

~~~

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

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

Contented, she ambled off in search of new pleasure.

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

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

Glancing away, Ishtar rebuffed the gesture.

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

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

Assam turned and frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ishtar followed more slowly, his heart pounding.

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

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

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

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

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

Ishtar followed as the sun touched the horizon.

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

Ishtar clasped his hands, his patience wearing thin.

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

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

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

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

“Just so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“And this seems honorable to you?”

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

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

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

“The sheep are mine.”

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matalah sighed. “Ever is it so.”

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

“God is gracious to those who repent—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ishtar understood the feeling.“

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

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OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

Your Prayer

Kelog chewed his lip as he watched an oversized gnat circle the room. Why didn’t someone smash the blinking thing into oblivion? He would. Certainly. If it got close enough. But it never did. Fury seethed through his whole system. Gnats shouldn’t be flying about on a frozen December day. They had no right to exist. Not here. Not now.

A gale wind struck the windowpane. Dang! Driving home will be hell. Not as bad as the drive here though. That’s not possible. He wiped sweat from his hands, rubbing them along his jeans. He glared at the fake poinsettia, the cheery signs on the wall with comforting platitudes, the assembly of grey humanity sitting hunched over their phones on lounge chairs that no one ever lounged on. Kelog loathed waiting rooms.

He peered at the doorway. He wanted to be in there. With his wife. But given the fact that he had carried her into the emergency room screaming for help, medics had promptly laid her on a stretcher, and then—in no uncertain terms—ushered him out, he figured he shouldn’t distract them from their primary concern. Laurie. And the baby.

How could such a wonderful day have gone so wrong?

They had snuggled in bed, comforting each other. Calm. Loving. The grey skies only highlighted the red and green decorations hanging in ornamental beauty along the porch railing. Quickly dressed. A strong cup of coffee. A kiss goodbye that hinted of pleasures intended for after work hours.

The day had flown by. “Any day now…” everyone had chanted with twinkles in their hope-filled eyes. And they weren’t talking about Santa and a new train set.

He had come home early. A surprise. He knew how tired Laurie had been, and he wanted to help clean the house before the big family gathering. She had probably done most of it, he knew. But in her condition, she never got as much done as she intended. And he was going to be her knight in shining armor and come to the rescue. He even brought home a new mop!

But after a twenty-minute drive against a roaring wind, parking in the snug garage, whistling his way into the kitchen armed with his playful sword-mop, he glanced around.

Somewhere in the universe, a sorceress plucked a low, vibrating chord. An oddity jumped at him from the corner of his eye. His morning coffee cup sat unwashed in the sink. Perplexity somersaulted right into anxiety.

“Laurie?” He laid the mop with a bow wrapped around it on the kitchen table where she couldn’t miss it. “Hey, honey! Guess what?”

Silence swept over his arms and chilled his bones.

“Laurie?”

He could hear his own footsteps as he pounded upstairs two at a time to their bedroom. Horrible images filled his mind. And then his heart.

She lay in bed, still as stone. Cold to his touch.

Calling for an ambulance never crossed his mind. The hospital was down the street, and his car was warm and close. Without conscious thought, he bundled her into his arms, her snoopy pajamas flaring and her arms flopping to the sides, and he trotted downstairs with the two most precious people in the universe.

“Mr. Jones?”

Kelog peered up. The gnat swirled in the air before him. He stood.

“The doctor will be here in a moment. Have you called anyone?”

Kelog blinked. His mouth dropped open. He knew he looked stupid. He felt stupid. Not idiotic just unable to think. Unable to process her words. “Call? Who?”

The nurse pressed his arm, gesturing back to the chair. As if sitting might help him think. “Your family? Her family? Parents?”

Yes. Of course. He should call someone. But who? And say what? He glanced at the nurse. Her uniform tag said “Beatrice.”

Nothing mattered. Except his wife. And the baby. “How are they?”

Beatrice had perfected the non-committal smile. “I really can’t say too much. The doctor will be here in a moment. I just came to check on you and see if you want me to call anyone. If you need anything?”

An award-winning android could not have moved more precisely. Kelog pulled his phone from his shirt pocket, hit the contacts list, pointed to Nestly Smith, and cleared his throat. “My sister. She’ll know what to do.”

With a compliant nod, Beatrice rose, tapped the phone and put it to her ear. She strolled a few feet away, stopping in front of a crucifix hanging on the wall.

Kelog blinked. I should be praying. I should’ve called mom. I should have…done something.

But nothing mattered. Time had stopped when that dark chord had struck. Life had ceased to exist as he knew it. Was he even breathing?

“Sir?”

Beatrice held out the phone. “She wants to talk to you.”

Kelog pressed the phone to his ear.

“I’m coming. Tom’s getting the car, and we’ll be there in about twenty minutes. Hang on, sweetheart. She’ll be okay. Everything will be all right.”

Tears flooded Kelog’s eyes. A million gnats swarmed around him. “But I didn’t call an ambulance. I forgot to pray. Never thought to call mom…”

“I’ll call mom. We’ll all be there. Soon. Hang on! Don’t give up.”

“She was cold. Really cold, Nes.”

“I’m praying, Kelly. Tom’s praying. Everyone who knows us will be praying.”

“I even brought home a mop.”

Kelog felt the shadow stop before him. The phone slipped from his fingers. He stood and faced the doctor.

“Mr. Smith, your wife had slipped into a coma—but she’s recovering now.”

Kelog heard himself whisper. “The baby?”

“She’s fine. Probably didn’t notice a thing. Just thought her mama was resting all day. Which, in a way, she was. Diabetic shock. It could’ve been worse. But she came out of it, and they’ll both be fine. We’ll just have to keep a close eye on them.”

The rest of the doctor’s words blurred as Beatrice, with a surprisingly firm grip, directed him to his wife’s bedside.

Laurie’s pale face broke into a sheepish grin when their eyes met. “I didn’t follow the doc’s directions last night…you know…I had other things on my mind.”

“Oh, God. I thought I’d lost you.”

Beatrice and the doctor meandered to the far side of the room.

Laurie’s grin widened. “You can’t lose me, love. Your prayers probably saved me.”

The gnat darted in front of Kelog’s eyes. He slammed his hands together, making everyone jump. When he spread his hands wide, a black smear decorated his palms. “Damn bug.” He glanced at his wife. “It distracted me; I forgot—”

A lightning bolt of sisterly anxiety sped into the room and catapulted into her brother’s arms. “I got here as soon—” She glanced over to the bed and shrieked. “You’re okay!” Veering from brother to sister-in-law, Nestly flung herself into Laurie’s arms.

Tom sauntered up and pressed Kelog ‘s shoulder. No words needed.

~~~

An hour later, after a fast-food run, Kelog stepped through the waiting room with two paper bags loaded with a selection that would ‘ve sent his high school health teacher into a panic attack.

Beatrice stood before the crucifix. Staring.

His mood leaping amid moonbeams, Kelog hardly missed a beat as he changed his trajectory and stopped beside the middle-aged woman. “Thank you. For today. For thinking of me and calling my sister.”

Beatrice looked over. She wiped away an errant tear. “I was glad to help.”

Kelog pointed to the cross and shrugged, unable to comprehend his lapse. “I forgot to pray.”

Beatrice shook her head. “No. You didn’t. Your love is your prayer. I only wish everyone prayed as much.”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Fourteen

—Grassland—

Insecure, Hesitant and Unwilling

Lud sat hunched on a bench next to Obed, in the center of the village. He glanced at Eoban who stood before them. They’re going to fight. I know it. He scooted to the edge of the bench.

Eoban faced Obed with his chest out, head up, and feet firmly planted on the ground. “I’m not going to continue in the trade business, and I never travel for fun. I plan to settle down. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get married.” He glanced at a group of women off to the side and grimaced. “Jonas will be so happy.”

Obed rose, slapping his hands to his sides, and faced Eoban. “So why—?”

“I must.” Eoban glanced around and met Lud’s gaze. “You understand, don’t you, Lud?”

Obed stomped closer. “Why are you asking him, since I’ll have to bear the burden—”

Eoban nudged Obed in the shoulder, one eyebrow rising. “A little adventure wouldn’t do you any harm, either.” He turned away. “I don’t trust things as we left them, and besides, Barak has taken responsibility for Ishtar’s sons. They have the right to know what happened to their father.”

Obed’s eyes narrowed as he placed his hands on his waist. “I never had much faith in Ishtar, and his degeneration merely proved his real quality.”

A memory flashed through Lud’s mind…Ishtar patting his arm, comforting and encouraging him on the day they walked away from bondage. Lud straightened and refocused his attention. “It’s true, Ishtar did disgrace himself. But Eoban has a point. When Ishtar helped free the slaves, he defied not only his father but also an evil within that would’ve doomed a lesser man. His bravery and decency saved my life.” He dropped his gaze. “The fact that he fell to the charms of an enchantress was partly my fault. My family rejected him. The insult was more than he could bear.”

Obed flicked his fingers dismissively. “From father to son. Who could trust such a man? I know I can’t!”

Exploding into wild arm waves, Eoban pounded forward. “Obed, you don’t have to trust Ishtar! I just want to find him, and if he’s alive, learn his plans. We’ve got to forge a new future without the fear that he might return someday. Certainly, his sons need to know the truth.”

Obed tilted his head, a wary expression in his eyes. “I never noticed you giving them much attention.”

“I’ve watched and listened. They’re better boys than I had dared to hope. They must’ve inherited their temperaments from their grandmother. They’re nothing like Haruz or even Ishtar, for that matter, though Amin does tend to brood at times. Who wouldn’t under such a cloud? That’s why I must go.”

Obed shrugged. “It’ll be a waste of time, but let’s tell Jonas and see what she has to say.” He strode sedately across the village, toward his wife.

Locking his hands behind his back, Eoban paced before the bench.

Lud glanced at Eoban. “You knew he wouldn’t like the idea. Why didn’t you just go alone on one of your famous journeys? You’re a free man.”

Bending low, Eoban met Lud’s gaze. “Because I don’t know what I am getting myself into, and I’d like traveling companions.”

Lud’s heart lurched into his throat and lodged there.

Obed followed behind Jonas. She marched up to Eoban, her brows furrowed, and her arms swinging like scythes ready for harvest. “What madness! You want to look for Ishtar? A risk for no gain—it’s not like you.”

Standing his ground, Eoban drummed his fingers on his leg. He turned to Obed. “If you’re going to call in Jonas, I’m calling in Namah.” He huffed, clearly put out. “While we’re at it, we’ll call in Barak and Amin…and Caleb too.”

Lud dragged a hand over his mouth, smothering a sigh.

Eoban swung his glare from Obed to Jonas. “What do you say? I’ll gather everyone, and we’ll meet tonight.”

Jonas nodded.

Eoban nudged Obed. “Mind if we convene at your place?”

Obed shrugged. “You’re playing with fire, Eoban. But fine. The outcome will affect us all.”

Lud slipped off the bench and watched as Obed and Jonas strolled away. He turned to Eoban. “Why make this even bigger…and harder?”

Eoban sighed. “It’s not going to get any easier for a long while yet.”

Lud lifted his hands in surrender. “Long as I don’t have to join in your madness.”

~~~

Jonas peered at a spectrum of colors ranging from pink to purple. She exhaled a long, slow breath. Tree branches stretched into the sky, creating a vision of contrasts. The black horizon etched the contour of the low hills, while the world around blended all the hues of the universe into one vast sheet of darkness. She murmured under her breath. “If other beings do exist, we’ll learn the truth of it…whether we hope to or not.”

Obed strode up from behind and squeezed her shoulders.

“Chatting to your invisible friend again?”

Jonas stiffened and faced her husband. “A blind man doesn’t know what he can’t see.”

~~~

Barak stood outside his house, his thoughts trailing into the distance.

Eoban, silhouetted against the dark sky, strode forward. “Contemplating your existence?”

Barak rubbed his jaw. “As a matter of fact, I was just wishing for warriors.”

Eoban grinned. “Now you’re speaking my language!”

Pointing to the bench, Barak paced before his house. “Sit down, and we can discuss the foolishness of being unprepared.”

Eoban clapped his hands. “You’ve spoken the desires of my heart! But I know a better place…with an appreciative audience. Come, let’s go!”

A sudden pain twitched. Barak rubbed his neck and rolled his shoulders. “What’re you talking about?”

“I am talking about whatever it was you were talking about—but with more details. Don’t argue. Come on! Namah is already waiting, and it’s getting dark.”

“Eoban?”

“Don’t ask! Just call those two boys. Where are they?” He cast his gaze around the village. “Amin and Caleb?”

“What do you want with them? They’re fine. I’ve never seen them so happy.”

Eoban lifted his hands. “Don’t worry. I’m not about to put them in any danger. We just want to speak with them about their father.”

A rock settled in Barak’s stomach. He glanced at the children playing in the distance. “Amin! Caleb! Hurry up, boys! We have business to attend to.”

Amin and Caleb raced forward, grinning. “Hello, Eoban! Yes, Barak?”

Eoban’s voice boomed. “We have a long journey before us, boys, adventure!”

Amin’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

“I’ll explain later. If I don’t gather everyone now, it’ll never happen, so hurry.”

The three traipsed to the lake.

Namah sat in a small boat gripping the edges. Eoban ushered the rest in and rowed across the lake at an alarming speed. By the time they reached the shore, the sun had set, and the glowing full moon rose.

Jonas laid wooden trenchers of minced goat meat, bread, honey, olives, dates, cheese and vegetables on a spread cloth. Carafes of spiced wine stood at the center.

Amin and Caleb dispensed with all formality, gathered what they could hold, and ate to their heart’s content. Eoban followed, gesturing for Barak and Obed to hurry.

When everyone had eaten their fill and became acquainted with Eoban’s plan, they fell into silence.

Pacing before them, Eoban clasped his hands behind his back. “So, who will come with me in search of Ishtar?”

Amin stood, his gaze following Eoban. “I will.”

“Then I go too.” Caleb gripped the edge of Amin’s tunic. “To keep you safe.”

Amin pried his brother’s fingers off. “No! You can’t. You’re too little.”

“Don’t leave me!” Caleb broke into sobs.

Jonas hustled closer and wrapped her arms around the child. “Don’t worry, Caleb. You must act like a man now and help keep the home fires burning. Milkan will need you more than ever if Barak is going away.”

The settled rock exploded in Barak’s stomach, and his eyebrows shot up as he glanced around. “Am I going somewhere?”

Jonas peered at Eoban. “If you’re determined to go, then you must take Barak along.” She looked Barak full in the face. “I know you have a lot to do, but please—” She glanced at Eoban. “He might wander places where wiser heads would avoid.”

Eoban winced and snapped a piece of thatch from the low roof. “Thanks for your confidence.”

“Oh, Eoban, you know you want Barak to go. Obed would be of no use. He’d think too much and drive you mad.”

Eoban tapped his fingers together, nodding. “I have no objection to Obed joining us. It might be good to have a thinking man along.”

Rising, Barak tossed a branch on the fire. “Thanks for your confidence.”

Eoban rolled his eyes and threw a stick at Barak.

Obed chuckled. “Contrary to all expectations, I’ll take up the challenge and go with you, Eoban.”

Jonas stared at Obed, her mouth dropping open.

Nausea rising, Barak folded his arms over his chest. “With Ishtar gone, I’ve been the leader of two clans. Would it be right for me to leave? And if Obed leaves…”

Eoban leapt forward. “No better time! Things are peaceful. Harvests have been good. We’re doing well.”

Obed nodded. “We’ll have to appoint someone to lead in our absence.”

Barak wiped sweat off his brow. “Who’s strong enough to manage three clans, wise enough to keep everyone calm, and completely trustworthy?”

All eyes swiveled toward Lud.

Lud raised his hands in protest. “Oh, no! I’m a former slave, and I have no experience. Please, you’d be mad to leave me in charge!”

A gleam sparkled in Eoban’s eyes. “Insecure, hesitant, and unwilling? You have all the qualifications, Lud. Congratulations!”

Lud glanced around with imploring eyes. “Eoban? Obed? Barak! You can’t be serious. Think what this could mean?”

Eoban patted his shoulder. “Lud, can you honestly tell Amin and Caleb that we can’t go in search of Ishtar because you’re afraid of managing things for a few days?”

Lud glanced from Amin’s sober face to Caleb’s red-rimmed eyes.

“Oh, all right.” He shot a glance into the darkness. “But I won’t know what I’m doing.”

Straightening, Barak heaved a long sigh.

~~~

The adventure begins where your plans end.

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