PART 1 - Chapter 1 - The Promise Fulfilled
Snow blanketed the ground in a pattern of crystals that glimmered in the moonlight. Steamy breaths of air broke the silence to be carried off into the wind. Grasping at a tree with a faint tremble of his hands and legs, Eschkta looked back at Lydia, praying for respite yet knowing it was useless to pray to gods that did not listen to mere mortals. He reached out and took her hand with a tenderness that told a story of many years. He tried to touch through time to the past and strengthen Lydia’s mind through sheer will—the will to live and move on toward another day. She smiled faintly while touching her swollen belly, knowing his intention and clenching his outstretched hand with a resolve that belied her inner worry.
“Lydia, the cold is creeping in, and we must keep moving. Hold my hand. Do not let go lest we become separated. The settlement should not be too far now.” Eschkta said while looking Lydia in the eyes to impart some sense of confidence.
Turning into the wind and staggering on in a desperate race, they stumbled, fell, and got back up in a seemingly never-ending struggle against time and nature. How long had it been—a day? Two days? Only the gods kept track of the time as the two fugitives pushed on toward the west with their heads hung low to keep the biting cold out of their eyes and faces. Step by laborious step, the two pressed on with the growing howl of the wind as their only companion, tearing at their noses, mouths, and ears to leave the edges of flesh frozen white—the onset of a long, slow death.
Eschkta knew they were doomed if a village did not appear soon. Lydia’s ragged breath of fear flew into his back as he cleared a trail through the knee-high snow. His dogged determination as a man with nothing to lose pushed his tired muscles, forcing him on with growing anger bursting out from the deep recesses of his soul - a passion that lashed out through eyes full of pain and frustration. After rounding a corner of thick pine trees, a flash of light beckoned him for a second, teasing him with probable delusion more than the promise of hope that a village lay ahead. Faith pressed on through the mind, forcing the will to live and moving the body forward even when all was seemingly lost. Another flash appeared in front of Eschkta’s desperate eyes. He shook his head, wondering if it was the glint of the moon on the snow. There it was—a village. Stumbling, pushing, pulling, and proceeding with a strength that only a man at the end of his rope could muster, Eschkta grasped Lydia’s hand harder and pulled her forward toward the light of hope.
As they approached the village, the smell of cooking overwhelmed them, almost pushing them to the ground with delirium. The light from the windows cast bands of illuminated snow, allowing them to move along and look for a place to hide and find some warmth. Eschkta put his arm around Lydia’s shoulders and walked her toward a stable at the end of the street.
“It should be warm in there,” Eschkta said.
Lydia nodded her head in acknowledgment and moved through the hole Eschkta made after pulling a board back from the wall. Eschkta slipped inside to the smells of horses and straw, deciding it would do for the night. He pulled the board back into place and commenced looking for an empty stall. He found it hidden in a back corner with plenty of hay to cover them up as they slept. Once settled in, Eschkta pulled out a piece of bread and frozen mutton for them to chew on to lessen the burning emptiness in their stomachs.
A few hours later, after the two of them had fallen asleep, Lydia’s moaning pierced through Eschkta’s consciousness like a knife through butter, pulling him into wakefulness with a start. She moaned again and shook Eschkta with earnestness, indicating panic.
Rubbing his half-asleep eyes, Eschkta asked Lydia, “What is wrong? Is the baby coming now?”
She grunted in pain and whispered, “Yes, it is, but it is struggling, as if in pain. I do not know what to do, Eschkta.”
“Ah okay, okay, let me prop your head up, and I’ll get some water. Keep breathing deeply.” Eschkta said with worry clearly etched across his face.
“Be quick. The pain is—it’s unbearable. The baby is in distress, Eschkta!” Lydia wheezed in renewed agony.
“Absolutely, I will be right back.”
Fear flicked across Lydia’s face and planted itself squarely on her brow. She licked her lips as beads of sweat fell into her eyes. She grunted and convulsed, moaning with the wind, trying not to push with all her might. There was nothing she could do to forestall the baby from coming now. Eschkta placed more straw under her head and quickly fetched some water from the public well. Upon re-entering the stable, he could see Lydia struggling due to the intense pain. Eschkta ran up and held her hand for when the expected passing of birth came.
She began involuntarily pushing, again and again, finally succumbing to the inevitable birthing of the new life to come. The child was stubborn, putting up a fight and clinging to the warmth and security of its mother’s womb. However, the natural progression of love, life, and death had its fingers on the pulse of time, enticing the child to leave the security of its mother’s body and come to a world of exploration, interest, loss, fear, and inevitability.
Lydia grunted and convulsed to the waves of contractions being thrust upon her. The baby was being hindered in its delivery, and Eschkta was entirely at a loss as to what to do. He continued to hold Lydia’s hand while his lips moved in a rhythmic motion of fevered prayer.
“Holy father of life, please do not forsake my wife and child. Please deliver them from Enki’s door. I am but a man of your creation. I beg you, please see to the conclusion of this matter.”
With a final scream of such intensity, Lydia delivered the child to Eschkta in one last moment of introduction. Eschkta held onto his son with eyes opened wide in amazement as he looked at this miracle of procreation. The boy was the spitting image of him down to the finest of lines on his chubby face.
“Eschkta…take good care of him, my love. Remember our ancestors and teach him the ways. The pain is stealing my life. I…I do not think I have the strength to c-carry on. Let me hold my son before I slip away,” Lydia whispered as Eschkta slowly handed her the child.
Eschkta wept with trembling lips and a copious amount of tears washing down his face in grief and joy. He sat beside Lydia, holding her head as she slowly traced her index finger along her baby’s face down to his fingers and along with his round belly to the tips of his toes. Her breathing began to come in shallower breaths as she slowly smiled and gently laid a hand on her son’s cheek. Gradually, Lydia put her head back in a graceful death. Eschkta sobbed uncontrollably and tenderly took the baby from Lydia.
Crying with sorrow at Lydia’s death, Eschkta swaddled his son in a blanket and held him close to his chest. He covered Lydia up and placed straw upon her before moving to an empty stall to lay down, still sobbing with joy and tears of heart wrenching pain. The gods were cruel in their desire for appeasement, taking a life while giving life, splintering Eschkta’s heart—caving in his hopes, aspirations, and future plans. All the while the wind roared and screamed its belligerence through the streets of the village with growing ferocity, knowing the dawn of another day was soon to be upon it.
In due course, the morning drove out the howl of the wind, the scream of the snow, and the bone-chilling depth of the deep freeze while stealing into the village with the timeless passage of millennia gone before. Shadows broke up, dispersing before the morning sunlight as thieves before the law; they flew into the corners of various alleyways, taking the night with them and leaving behind a glorious day of diamond-dappled snowflakes blazing in the light.
Gradually the village started to awaken with a sense of purposeful movement, unaware of the events of the previous night that foretold a time of truth. A time when the strength of character, the will of the mind, and the desire for freedom would cause men to rise up and question their purpose and the direction of their lives.