As he crested the top of the hill in front of him, Ethan detected an unmistakable odour.  It was the stench of warm rotten eggs.  It’s like that sulphur spring, when we went out west.  The one in Banff, he thought to himself.  He saw that he was right when he got to the other side.  Below him, nestled against the side of the hill, was a wide pool of steaming water, a natural hot tub.

            Ethan approached slowly, for he saw that he could not be alone.  There was an ornate stone table with two chairs beside the pool, laden with platters of rich meats, fruit, bread and jugs of liquid.  He couldn’t tell whether it was juice, water or wine from this distance, but the sight of it made his throat remember how thirsty it was.  His canteen was nearly empty and it had been a long night.

            He drew one of the sticks off his back, holding it like a sword or cudgel, just in case.  Someone else was out here, evidenced by the table and food, and he didn’t yet know if they were friend or foe.  After all, I had warned him to be careful.  It was food, and he was hungry, but he didn’t know where it had come from.  Granted, the food he received while he slept came from an unknown benefactor, but it had never come in such a lavish form.  It was unexpected, and that had his nerves on edge, every sense searching his surroundings for the owner of the table.

            “There’s no need for weapons, is there, Ethan?”  A voice said from behind him, sultry and feminine. 

            Ethan whirled, surprised that he had detected nothing until the voice had spoken.  He could spot scorpions in the sand a hundred metres away from him, hear the scuttling of their feet, yet the lady who had spoken was a bare ten feet away and he had heard nothing.

            He gazed long at the vision before him, gauging whether she was a threat or not.  I had warned him, after all, and he took an archangel’s word seriously, apparently, for he did not yet lower his stick.  She stood and patiently endured his scrutiny.  She actually seemed to enjoy the attention, resting one hand on her hip and using the other to push her long hair back over her shoulders, making sure that Ethan got a good look.

            She was beautiful, with long blond hair spilling to her waist, hair the white-blond colour that is usually only found on the heads of small children, for most people darken to deeper golds and honey-browns as they age.  She was curvaceous, with the classic hourglass figure, yet slender at the same time, and she possessed a winning, seductive smile.  Dressed in a long gown of deep scarlet, one that bared her shoulders, she was truly a vision of beauty, possessed of many charming qualities.

            None of which phased Ethan in the slightest, apparently.  He stood with his head cocked to one side, appraising her.  It was a stance that could have been mistaken for gawking admiration, but Ethan Pitney had never stood like that in his life.  No, this was Ethan Pitney’s calculating, considering stare, one that searched a person’s stance and body language for signs of their character and mood. 

            Ethan had developed this skill unconsciously in grade school as a defence mechanism: a boy who was going to taunt or strike Ethan gave off signals beforehand, and if Ethan could see it coming, he could avoid it.  The talent had crossed over into daily usage, because it made him an excellent judge of character and an instinctive translator of body language.  He never had to think about it, he just suddenly found himself knowing things about people before he even spoke to them for the first time.  It was part of the gift that allowed him to recognize the people who would change his life even before they were his friends.

            He was using it now to appraise the woman before him, though she perceived his stare as appreciation.  She smiled coquettishly.

            “Can’t we be friends?”  Her smile was coy and warm as she pointed at the stick still in his hand.

            Ethan slowly put the stick back in the loop on his back beside its mate, and then rested his hands on his hips.

            “Who are you?” He asked, direct and to the point.

            “What, no ‘hello’, no ‘how do you do?’  I brought food, and water, and wine, and you reward me with questions and hostility?  Ethan Keaton Pitney, I thought that you’d been raised better than that.”  She spoke in a tone that was mockingly scolding, as if she was trying more to make him smile than deliver an admonishment.

            It worked, for he put his hands down and let his head hang, releasing the tension in his neck.  He had been holding it at attention, each of his senses on full-alert.  He had been searching for signs of a trap.  Now his guard was down, despite my warnings, because he thought she was offended.  Ethan had always hated to hurt people’s feelings.

            “Forgive me, lady.  I was recently warned that I should be wary of those I meet, for there are supposed to be enemies about.”

            “Well, that’s understandable.  I take no offence.”  She said generously, “Your quest is very important, you should be careful who you place your faith in.”

            He nodded, glad that she was not offended. 

            “Come, sit at my table and rest.  You must be weary.”  She gestured gracefully.  “Then we may talk at our leisure.”

            Ethan dutifully obeyed, moving to the indicated stone chair.  He stood by it and waited politely for her to sit first.  Instead, she moved to his side, moving with the fluid grace reserved for women and perhaps cats.  She placed gentle hands on his shoulders, sitting him as if he were a lord come to feast, and smiled warmly.

            “You are my guest, good sir, let me wait upon you.”  She said in her honey-rich voice.  The lady poured a glass of red wine into his golden flagon, and then selected various meats and several fruits for his golden plate.  Only after his dish was full did she move to seat herself at the other end of the table, settling into the chair with a flowing motion that set off her curves. 

            Ethan looked at the food on his plate, his stomach growling.  There was a luscious cut of roast beef the way his father had always made it, with the pink still in the middle the way his sisters had liked it; and strawberries, and red apples, and cherries.  There were even raspberries; rich red ones, his favourite.  He looked at the wine in his cup, and then at the lady.

            “You still haven’t told me your name.”  He said.

            “I am Astarte,” she said, “But you may call me Star, if you like.  All my friends do.”

            Ethan felt a sudden jolt run through him at her words.  Star had been his private name for Hope, inspired by a hymn at church that compared hope to a star, shining in the night.  That this gorgeous creature before him was called the same could not be a coincidence.

            “Come,” she said, “Let us make a toast.”  She raised her goblet high.  “To journeys, and the friends that come along.”

            Another sudden shock raced through Ethan’s nerves, as her words echoed the sentiments of the poem he had written for Hope once upon a time, in what seemed now almost another life. Ethan could feel the powerful forces that had guided him throughout his life converging again, and it was a force he had never been able to deny.  Whenever he had felt this energy gather in the past, he had been swept away.  Something of tremendous importance was about to happen, though he knew not what.  He offered a silent prayer to God, hoping for the strength to see things through.

            To be polite, Ethan raised his glass.  When Astarte drank, he let the rich liquid within his goblet touch his lips, but no more.  For one thing, though he disliked alcohol in all its forms, he hated wine, ever since having tried it as a child on New Year’s Eve.  For another, Ethan knew exactly what Astarte was trying to do.  He was going to let her play her little game a little longer, to see if she revealed herself, but he knew that this was not the person I had wanted him to meet.

            In part, it was because I had warned him.  But it was more because he was a good English student in high school.

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