Suffer Little Children

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He calls it an inn, but it's really just a doss-house. And he says it has a stable, but I know different, because I sleep in that stinking byre.

Not that I mean to sound ungrateful. He's been good to me. He keeps me fed and, in return, I tend and water his animals and those of his tenants. They're an odd collection of beasts, not at all like Ishmael's charges at the grand house opposite. Now that is a proper stable.

I came to Bethlehem when my mother decided to die. I was pretty twisted then, I guess. My dad had disappeared after some kind of brush with a bunch of legionaries. And Mum got sick after Herod's thugs did those things to her later that same year. She was OK for a while, but when she started to go blind she just gave up.

And now I'm twelve years old in this year of the Star, and it's a strange time in Palestine, with talk of rebellion everywhere and that amazing smear of light turning moonless dark dawn-bright. They set great store by their portents in these parts. The Romans have got it coming to them this time.

Last night was stranger than most. It was well after midnight when I woke with a start among the straw. The ox had almost trampled me. When those animals get frightened, they're all eye-rolling, tongue-lolling frenzy. I listened in trepidation for whatever had spooked it and soon I heard them too; her panting and sobbing, his cursing. He kept calling her a filthy slut and she just kept pleading that an angel had given her the child.

After a while she started screaming and I couldn't stand it. I broke my cover and rushed outside, his threats ringing in my ears. I ran to the other side of the yard, and ducked into the warm darkness of Ishmael's stable. I heard him leap up and I hurriedly stammered my excuses, cringing in fear of the sweep of his staff.

We dived into the hay, stifling giggles and listening to the ranting of the madman opposite and to the blood-curdling screeching of the woman.

'She's having a baby', I said, trying to sound like it happened all the time.

Ishmael nodded and we both fell silent for a moment. It was then that I recognised the smell of camels.

'Three of them', he declared proudly. 'Look at these!' There were polished harnesses studded with gemstones and feathery plumes and rings of pure, bright metal. They were things of beauty by this little town's meagre standards.

'Their owners are some kind of foreign priests', whispered Ishmael conspiratorially. 'Dripping with jewels. One of them was saying they've come here to find the Messiah.'' With that he went off into his usual spate of simmering-blood-of-Judea stuff, but I was thinking about the woman in the byre. I probably shouldn't have said anything, but I found myself boasting about her claims.

Ishmael's reaction wasn't at all what I expected. He went very quiet and smirked as if he was planning something. Then he took down one of the long white shifts that the livery-servants all wear and he made me put it on. After that, he draped one of the camel harnesses around each of my shoulders. The plumes waved above my head like ridiculous wings.

'You know Michael the shepherd?' he sneered. I didn't, but I didn't much like the sound of this game either. 'Good', he said, ignoring my reluctance. 'He's a nutter. He'll be up on the hill out the back, along with his mates. I'll tell you just what to say to them, OK?'

I wish I hadn't played along with all of that now. I was surprised when they took in the angel stuff like they did, but now I understand it a bit better. I guess I'm small for my age and people have taken me for an infant of magical intelligence before. This time, there was the strange get-up and the Star overhead, all adding to the effect. Michael and his companions were still sceptical, though, as I lead them down into the stable-yard. It was the scene at the manger that really persuaded them.

The couple in there were both calm now. He was cowed and humble, she suddenly seemed so strong and assured and she looked at me with an expression of supreme tranquility, as if she was perfectly sure that her child was the Son of God. And the baby itself, it gazed into my eyes like an old man, like one who knew everything. It wasn't like a baby at all. It almost seemed to radiate its own light in that dark place and the Starlight was streaming through the gaps in the roof and we just fell on our faces, the shepherds and me. I don't think I've ever been more frightened in my life.

It was some time before I dared to move. I just crawled out backwards, flat to the floor. When I was clear of the door, I got up to run and stumbled headlong into someone's chest. It was a strange dark-skinned man with bright eyes and flowing hair. I was too scared even to scream, and my legs just sagged under me.

He marched me into the good stable and there were two other men there and Ishmael too, crouched in the straw and whimpering. I thought they would kill us both. I was still wearing their harnesses, after all. But they just pulled them off me, and sat me down, and asked me what a child was doing out of bed at that time of night.

They turned out to be kindly, but strange. They weren't interested in the prank with the shepherds. They drew my life-story out of me, and seemed sympathetic. They already knew about the baby in the byre somehow, and who he was supposed to be. They said they'd go and judge for themselves in a little while.

Ishmael was a little more confident too, by now. He said that he hoped that there really was a new Saviour, because our people needed to be freed from the yoke of Rome. The men looked at each other. The one who'd caught me began to speak and he was suddenly tired and sad.

'There will be a Messiah', he said. 'He may be true, and he may be false, but he will come because mankind has made this time for him, even if God has not chosen to do so. And men will kill and fight in the name of this prophet, whether true or false. The Star tells us that the time and place are near. Whether this is the night and this is the place, we will only discover in time to come.'

A child's cry rang out from the ramshackle building a few yards away and the foreigner smiled a weary smile. 'Whoever he is, your actions tonight have helped to make sure that he'll be a focus of adulation and hatred in equal measure for generations.'

He looked at me with calm, wise eyes. 'We've seen too many lands with too many gods to believe anything different', he added.

'I'm sorry, Sir.' I didn't know what else to say.

'Don't apologise', he replied. 'You've known too much pain for one so young.'

His friends were already making their way towards the little building opposite as he pressed the silver piece into my palm. 'This is for you', he said, in a kindly voice. 'What's your name?'

'Judas', I whispered.

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