1. We Three Kings
"I don't like this star in the east," said Thranduil grimly from atop his camel. "Whenever I see something burning that brightly in the heavens where nothing was before, it makes me worry that the Belair are up to new mischief concerning the Middle-lands."
Thranduil's camel took advantage of the pause to twist its head back around and stare at its rider balefully. It looked as if it might be working up to spit.
"Nasty, evil-tempered beasts," Thranduil grumbled, eyeing his wayward mount in return. "How I wish we had horses! The motion of this animal makes my backside hurt."
"Nasty, evil-tempered beasts are always a trial, Sire," Galion observed with a carefully neutral tone of voice and expression, thus earning himself his master's glare, previously reserved for the camel. "However, they are often a necessity for reasons of practicality and employment -- especially if one must travel in these arid lands. At this time of year," Galion concluded with an eloquent cough.
"Mind your tongue, Galion, or I will leave you in Damascus, where you may enjoy the creature comforts you so crave, while my son and I journey on homeward." Thranduil looked up into the night sky, where the stars blazed like white gems in the cold, crisp air. "The land is hardly so arid! The water falls from the very air, although in a frozen form."
Legolas sighed and pulled his cloak more closely about him for the warmth. Who would have expected snow in Judea, even in the month the Romans called December? Although it seemed not a proper snow, lying thinly on the ground like a layer of flour spilled on the kitchen floor by a careless cook. At home, in the Wood of Greenleaves, the snow would lie thickly between the trees, the wind pushing it into tall drifts. The remaining Wood-elves would have brought evergreen boughs and mistletoe into the caverns and lit candles to lift their spirits, although in the absence of the King there would be no Solstice tree to wear the crown in Thranduil's stead.
The Elves of the Greenwood had realized they could not stay in the sanctuary of their king's enchanted forest forever without becoming a rustic folk, fading into forgetfulness of glories past. Thranduil had taken them out into the world of Men to teach and to heal, passing on the wisdom of the Elder Days where they might and partaking in the vibrant life of this new Age. They returned to the Wood from time to time to renew their spirits as every Elf must. Not often enough for Legolas, who missed his home with every year spent away, but it would have to suffice.
Not for the first time, Legolas regretted the trade mission that had taken him and Thranduil to Alexandria at this time of year. Already, at three days past the Solstice, it was far too late to celebrate the holiday with his mother and the rest of Thranduil's people in Babylon. Only great luck in travel would get them there for Legolas's Begetting Day in mid-January. He and his father were strangers in a strange land -- how lonely it felt to be so far from home at this darkest time of the year.
The cold weather was unseasonable but perhaps a blessing in disguise. Legolas doubted that Thranduil would have preferred a rain drenching them to the skin had the air been just that much warmer. He reached down to pat the hump of his own camel, a female who had carried him patiently across the Sinai from Egypt. "You are not a nasty, evil-tempered beast, are you, Hayin? You are a good beast."
"That," Galion whispered beside him, "is because 'some' people are reasonable and are not so prideful as to insist on riding the equivalent of a stallion. Even when it is an odd beast with an ungainly neck and a hump in its back that pierces the bollocks even through this barbarian contraption that passes for a saddle."
"I heard that," Thranduil growled. "Make yourself useful, Galion, and tell me how far it is to the next town. And by that I mean the next town with a decent inn, with decent wine -- not that watered-down swill the Romans drink -- and a bed with no fleas."
"The answer to that, Sire, is the same as when you asked it last -- farther than we can ride tonight. But Bethlehem-Ephratah is over the next rise."
"I never thought I would say this," Thranduil sighed, "but I miss Gondor . . . and Rivendell too."
Legolas echoed the sigh as his keen eyes caught the glow of a town behind the foothills ahead. He agreed with his father: he could really use some wine right about now.
"All right," said Thranduil, kicking his reluctant camel into a lope. "You know the drill -- hoods up, hair loose, and speak that misbegotten tongue they call Latin."
"Are you here for the counting, Good Masters?" the innkeeper asked, brushing a lock of grizzled wind-blown hair from his eyes. His son, a dark-haired man just past his first flush of youth, stood next to him in the courtyard, greeting the newest arrivals.
"Counting?" Thranduil stood next to his camel, taking care to remain out of spitting range.
"The census ordered by Governor Quirinius," the innkeeper explained with a sour look on his face. "All citizens of Judea are to return to the towns of their birth to be counted for the taxation."
Thranduil shook his head. "We are travelers from afar. I am Melchior, silk-merchant of Babylon. This is my man, Caspar, and my companion, Balthasar --" he indicated Legolas, presently dismounting from his camel. "We require rooms for the night -- a suite would be nice -- a hot meal, and hot water for bathing."
Innkeeper and son exchanged an unhappy look. "I fear we have no rooms, Master Melchior."
"If you have no suites, a single room will suffice," Thranduil said. Bethlehem's innkeeper spoke his Latin with a heavy accent that even Legolas, with his practice at learning many tongues, found difficult to comprehend.
"No, my Lord, you do not understand," the man said. "My inn is full. We have no rooms available, although we can feed you and your companions in our tavern."
"Although, for the right amount of gold," the son interjected, "we might evict some of the poorer guests from their rooms. Or the not so poor patrons -- depending on the amount of gold, of course."
Legolas pursed his lips. The world of Men grew to be a colder place with each passing generation. While the father looked harried with the extra burden of tending to so many extra travelers and the prospect of further taxation, the son seemed to have sensed the opportunity for profit in the situation. It was an ill wind that blew no one any good.
"There is not enough gold in this world to make me do that," Thranduil muttered.
"Shall we press on, then, my Lord?" whispered Galion. "Jerusalem is but a few hours further."
Thranduil shook his head. "The night is already well advanced. I am tired. Our camels are tired." He raised his voice to address the innkeeper. "Have you at least shelter and provender for our beasts? If so, my companions and I can shift for ourselves."
The innkeeper nodded. "We have a stable. My other son will show you the way. Yochannon . . .?" he shouted, and a much younger man, little more than a boy, appeared carrying a lantern.
"This way," the boy mumbled, as Legolas fell in beside him. "Stable's this way."
"And where do you propose to sleep tonight, my Lord?" Legolas heard Galion asking, as his father and the valet fell into line behind them.
"I have no idea, my good Caspar," Thranduil replied. "Perhaps we can find a villager to take us in, or we can shelter in the corner of two walls. If worse comes to worst we will spend the night in a field under the cover of our cloaks. All I know is that I refuse to have some poor Mort-- ah, traveler turned out into the cold on my account. You and I have roughed it before."
"Aye, Sire, that we have," said Galion, his tone warming despite the situation. Legolas merely smiled. He didn't fancy a night in the cold, but Elbereth knows, he'd slept in worse places in his time too.
"Door's round this wall," said the boy, holding his lantern higher to light the way. Legolas realized that the lad was not speaking the language of the Romans but the tongue of the folks in these parts -- Aramaic, they called it. Legolas had a far easier time understanding it than heavily accented Latin. "My name's John."
"I know," Legolas said. They had reached the doors of the stable, and Legolas looked up to see the strange bright star shining above the roof peak.
"Round John, they call me," the boy continued. "Round John 'cause I'm . . ." He gestured down at his body.
Once inside the stable and into the pool of light cast by another lantern hanging from a rafter, Legolas caught his first good look at their guide. 'Yes,' he thought, 'round indeed!' Everything about John was round, from his pot belly to the full planes of his face, the only exception being his odd almond shaped eyes. He was also no child, although the top of his head barely reached the lower part of Legolas's chest. He had the first tender sproutings of a beard on his chin.
At first, Legolas thought that John might have had a foreign mother, for he had seen upturned eyes like that on the golden-skinned Men of the East who came in with the caravans carrying silk and spices. But, no, he decided; the crease of the lad's palm, a single line reaching from one side to the other, told a different story. John was simple; the sort of changeling child Legolas had seen born to Mortal mothers upon occasion in his years among them. Yet, though he might lack wit, Legolas could feel the sweetness of John's spirit shining like that new bright star above the rooftops.
"I take care of the stable," John said proudly. "I like the animals. They don't laugh at me like the people do."
Legolas felt his heart catch at the casual cruelty Mortals could sometimes display. "I would never laugh at you, John." He looked around the stable, which was capacious and well-tended. Two of the stalls held camels like their own, but he saw a few horses and donkeys drowsing in the pens. "You do a good job here."
The strange little man beamed up at these words of praise.
"Yes," said Thranduil, leading his camel in the door behind them. "I think we may bed down with our beasts here for the night with not too much discomfort. That is, providing -- Ai!"
What could have startled his father enough to make him forget his own rule and speak in Elvish? Legolas turned his head sharply. They were not alone.
In one of the far corner stalls a young woman lay curled in the straw, wrapped in a faded blue cloak. A tiny baby in rough swaddling cloths had been laid in the manger beside her. The woman slept the sleep of pure exhaustion.
"Lady had a baby last night," John informed them matter-of-factly. "No room at the inn so Papa let them stay here."
"So young . . ." Thranduil whispered.
'Yes,' thought Legolas; 'too young to be the mother of a babe already.' She seemed little more than a child herself. Yet nothing the Mortals did could shock him anymore. They lived their brief lives striving ever toward the future and then were gone all too soon, leaving only their children behind to repeat the cycle. They never seemed to sense the futility of it, if futility it was -- for who, even among the First Born, had the insight to understand the Gift of the Allfather to his Second Born children?
"Indeed, my wife is very young." A man of middle height rose from the shadows where he sat on a pile of straw. His hair and beard were shot through with grey, and he smoothed down the creases of a coarse homespun wool robe as he spoke.
Legolas saw his Thranduil's eyes narrow, and he knew the thoughts that must now be coursing through his father's mind. That a man old enough to control his passions should take such a young girl to wife and force himself and a child upon her as well! It was an infamy.
"My Mary is a pearl of great price," the man continued with a surprising dignity. "There were those who counseled me to put her from me, but I would not see her . . . shamed, or harmed in any way. She and the child are a gift to me from The Almighty in the fullness of my years."
"Oh . . ." Thranduil mouthed, and in his single word Legolas sensed the import of knowledge and understanding left unspoken. Thranduil bowed his head. "I am Melchior, merchant of Babylon."
"Joseph," the man replied. "Carpenter of Nazareth."
"Well met, Master Joseph," Thranduil said, looking around at the piles of straw and the slumbering animals. "And yet I wonder that you should choose to travel at such a time, with your wife great with child. As humble as this stable is, you are fortunate that your wife's time did not come upon her out on the road."
Joseph shrugged. "Choice did not enter into it. We must all render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's. And to The Most High, that which is His," he said, with a sidewise glance toward the manger.
As the two men spoke, Legolas and Galion had unsaddled the camels and settled them into a pen in the opposite corner.
"I have gold, my friend," Thranduil said. "I could, perhaps, arrange for a room inside for your wife and your . . .?"
"Son," Joseph answered. "The babe is a boy. I thank you for your kindness, Melchior, but the beasts warm this place better than the single hearth warms the inn itself, and there is more quiet here than inside."
"That's right," John concurred. "Inn's full up. People are sleeping on the settles and in the hallways. Rough men too."
Thranduil nodded, just as the young woman, roused by the sound of voices, lifted up her head and gave them all a smile of surpassing sweetness. In the manger, the child stirred and began to fuss. The girl, Mary, picked him up, examined him for wetness, and placed him to her breast, turning partly away to do so.
"She is beautiful, Master Joseph," Thranduil whispered. "I congratulate you on your lovely wife and your fine son. You are a lucky fellow indeed."
Joseph nodded. "I count myself most blessed among men."
"However, they will both require some privacy," Thranduil continued, "if my companions and I are to share the shelter of this stable with you tonight, which I hope we may do, with your leave." He pulled off his cloak and handed it to Joseph, casting a pointed look at Galion, who immediately did the same. Legolas removed his own cloak, and Joseph proceeded to drape them around the stall as a makeshift screen.
Legolas heard John gasp at the revealed richness of their garb beneath. All three of them wore long robes split in front and back over loose trousers for riding. Thranduil's robe was of royal blue silk, shot through with copper and gold threads in the weave. Galion wore finely woven wool in red and blue stripes, but his garment had a rich banding of orange braid at neck and wrists, and his fasteners were of polished brass. Legolas, in his muted forest green, was the drabbest of the three, yet his robe was of fine linen, overlaid with a subtle pattern of leaves embroidered in brown thread.
"Are you kings?" John whispered, his almond eyes alight with wonder.
Legolas looked into the strange young man's face and pondered. How best to answer this? In the world of Men, he and his father presented themselves as persons of wealth rather than of power. However, Thranduil was, in point of fact, a king, still extending his protection over Eryn Lasgalen in the north. Legolas had ruled his own realm for a short time, so long ago that the recollection of his land had long since vanished into the mists of memory. Even Galion, though technically a servant, presided over Thranduil's various households as if they were his own private domain. To say they were all three of them kings would not be so great a stretch of the truth.
Legolas placed his hand on John's shoulder. His keen Elven sight had already detected the faint bluish tinge of the young man's lips, and now, beneath his touch, he could feel the slight hesitation of his pulse. As with many of the gentle, simple ones, John's heart had a weakness and he most likely would not live to see a great age. No matter the length of his days, his life would be filled with trials -- the ignorant scorn of other Men, the sad understanding that he was different, not as quick of wit as the others. While the other young men found sweethearts, married and had children of their own, John would be on the outside, ever alone.
While Joseph put up the last of the cloaks, Legolas discreetly watched Mary suckling the baby and felt the familiar pang that always took his heart at the sight of a woman with a child. It seemed a joy that was never to be his, and he knew only too well the pain of being an outsider. Why, then, not give John a brief moment of richness in his life -- the night he had been visited by royalty?
"Yes, John," he said, smiling softly. "I suppose you could say we are kings."
Galion caught his eye and quirked up the corner of his mouth. Legolas shrugged.
"I'm hungry," Thranduil announced grandly.
"Very well, my Lord Melchior," Galion said, managing to pronounce Thranduil's alias as if it were Melkor, "mighty King Caspar will walk across the courtyard and fetch you some dinner."
Legolas laughed and sat down on an overturned bucket while John busied himself feeding the animals.
"And don't forget the wine," Thranduil yelled at Galion's retreating back.
Before long, Galion returned with a large basket of coarse loaves. "Is that all?" Thranduil asked.
Galion nodded. "No meat, and they were all out of cheese -- not that you would have wanted to eat their goat cheese anyway, Sire. But cheer up -- man does not live by bread alone." He set a huge jug carefully down on the dirt floor. "With enough gold there were still certain necessities to be had."
Legolas smiled to himself. His father's valet indeed had his priorities straight.
"Bread and wine," Thranduil said. "It will do."
Galion spread a blanket from one of the camel saddles and they gathered around. "Master Joseph," Thranduil called, "will you break bread with us?"
The old man nodded and settled stiffly down next to Thranduil after first taking a loaf over to his wife. Legolas broke his loaf in two and pulled off a chunk of the coarse brown bread.
Thranduil smiled as he took a bite of his own. "After today's long ride, this tastes better than venison and quail." He picked up the jug of wine. "I would like to propose a toast to your son, Master Joseph. Does he have a name yet?"
Joseph nodded. "His name is Joshua."
"After the general of Moses, who led your people out of Egypt. It is a good name." Thranduil raised the jug and drank. "To Joshua -- good health, and long life!" He passed the jug to Galion.
Galion drank. "To Joshua -- peace and good fortune!"
"Thank you, Master Caspar," Joseph said. "Unlike Joshua of old, I wish him to be a man of peace."
"Children rarely cooperate with our plans for them," said Thranduil, eyeing Legolas from under lowered lashes. "They have ideas of their own, yet often they surprise us."
Legolas smiled at his father as he took the jug. "To Joshua. Whether a man of peace or of the sword, may his life count for the good."
He felt a hand on his arm, and looked to see John holding out his other hand for the jug. Why not, he thought? John had the first signs of his beard and was surely old enough to drink. He should not be excluded from the solemn ceremonies of the other men. Legolas passed him the wine.
"To Joshua. Be happy, Joshua!" John drank and made a face. "That's nasty."
"All the more reason not to drink too much of it, son," said Joseph, taking the jug and having a sip for himself. "I thank you all for your blessings -- especially the last." He set the jug in the middle of the blanket and turned to Thranduil. "You know of Moses and the history of my people? That is odd in a man of the north."
"I make my home in Babylon, where not so long ago your people were carried hence as captives. Some remain there still. I have . . . read your holy writings."
"I see." The old man nodded. "Then you would recognize the name of David, who was born here, long ago. I am of his house, as is my wife, which is how we come to be here in Bethlehem for the census."
"Ah, yes, King David, who saw a woman bathing and lost his heart," said Thranduil with a faraway smile. "This little one is of a noble lineage." He took another sip from the jug. As rough as the vintage was, the wine seemed to have improved Thranduil's mood. "We have a custom among my people. When a child is born we all give gifts. I have a gift for your son, Master Joseph." He opened his purse and poured out a generous handful of coins, all gold and bearing the likenesses of various rulers from Caesar Augustus to Ptolemy. He raised one golden eyebrow in Galion's direction as if to indicate it was the valet's turn next.
"Ah . . ." said Galion. "I think I have just the thing for the child." He removed several cakes of resin from his belt pouch, where he kept them as a necessity for warding off the inevitable stenches of the mortal habitations in which they were forced to stay while traveling. "Frankincense. This is a stable, after all. I think the lady will appreciate it as well."
Now all eyes turned to Legolas, who smiled inwardly. His father would, of course, give gold and so much of it that the three of them would most likely not be staying in suites of rooms on the remainder of their journey. So how does one follow a gift from the man who has everything? He rummaged inside his saddlebags, finding a bulky package he had purchased in the bazaar in Alexandria and brought home as a curiosity from the land of the ancient pharaohs. He had thought perhaps to give it as a gift to his father's chief Healer, Nestalinde, at his next Begetting Day should they reach home in time for Legolas to follow the custom he had learned from his hobbit friends. It would do for the child instead.
But how to explain it? Although the substance was quite costly, myrrh was used for the preparation of the dead. It seemed an oddly morbid gift for a newborn, although Legolas knew, sadly, that age and death would overtake this tender life all too soon, as it inevitably must for Mortals. How he wished they could all have eternal life!
"Myrrh, Master Joseph," Legolas said, handing the package to the father. "I am told that it is most efficacious in treating cuts and scrapes. Little boys are very prone to those."
"And big boys too," he heard Thranduil mutter.
A piercing wail from the baby made them all turn their heads. "He just ate," Thranduil said. "It has to be the other." Galion nodded.
Sure enough, after a short time, Mary's slim hand reached for a partly dried cloth that had been hanging over the stall partition. Her arm brushed Legolas's cloak, knocking it down into the straw. Joseph rose and went over to assist his wife, followed by John. The young man picked up the cloak, but rather than hanging it on the stall again, he draped it carefully around Mary's shoulders as she worked to rewrap her son in his swaddling clothes.
Put into a still-damp clout and slightly wet bindings, the child continued to fuss. "Can I hold him?" John asked. "I don't want he should be cold."
The young mother hesitated only a moment, taking John's measure before handing over her baby into careful arms. John held the child close, rocking and speaking softly, telling commonplace tales of the animals in the stables -- the dove who had her nest in the rafters each year, and the cat who had hidden her kittens in a barrel of grain. "You aren't alone, little baby," he crooned. The crying subsided as newborn eyes gazed upward into almond-shaped ones.
"Some people have the knack," Thranduil said with amusement. "But she'll need more. Those cloths don't have time to dry properly. And a change of bindings, and maybe some blankets."
Galion nodded wearily and began to rise. "I'll go ask at the inn."
Legolas laid a hand on his shoulder. "No -- it's my turn. I'll see what I can do," he said, unfolding his long body and heading for the door.
After the warmth of the stable, the cold air of the courtyard hit Legolas's cheek like a slap. He made his way toward the lighted doorway of the inn, only to see a serving girl come out to empty a slops bucket onto the nearby midden.
"Lass," he called. "I would have a favor of you."
She turned to him with the wary eyes of one who has had to dodge too many pinches on the bottom in the previous week and the rough gropings of churlish hands before that. "Lord?"
He smiled, hoping to reassure her. "My party and I are staying out in the stable. I wonder if you could get a few things for us from the inn. Some blankets and other items."
She shook her head. "There is nothing to be had, with so many people to take care of. Even some of the rooms are doing without. I am sorry."
Legolas sighed. "Even a few rags would help me. You see, there is a woman out in the stables who has given birth, and she lacks for many things for her baby."
The girl's eyes widened. "A baby? Out in that barn? Poor little thing! Why didn't you say so?" She knit her brow as if at the foolishness of men and nodded back in the direction of the inn. "Don't look for any help from in there. But my sister Rachel has baby things she'll have no use for until spring. Go to her and ask; I'm sure she'll lend some things, or even give a few if she must."
"Can you take me to your sister?"
The girl shook her head. "I haven't leave to go, what with the inn so busy. But her house is only half a league to the north, just over the next hill. You can't miss it, but if you should go astray, ask for the house of Josiah the stonecutter and tell them that Abigail sent you."
Legolas bowed, eliciting a smile from Abigail. "I hope the walk won't trouble you."
"Oh, no, lass," Legolas replied. "I've walked much further in my time." He turned away and headed up the road toward Jerusalem.
A bitter wind blew down from the hills to the north. Legolas felt the cold far less than a Mortal, but without his cloak, he felt it nonetheless. 'Mind over matter,' he told himself, following a trick Thranduil claimed to have learned from Oropher. 'If you think yourself warm, you will be warm.' It had worked for him in a blizzard on Caradhras and many times since then. Nevertheless, he picked up his pace, running along under the starlight. Soon his feet had carried him over the crest of the hill, and he turned aside, looking for any signs of a habitation.
He saw none. But far off, he spied the glow of a campfire, and beyond that, faint white shapes dotted the dark hillside: sheep, their white wooly coats bright against the patchy snow cover. "Hoi, good shepherds!" he called out, making for the campfire.
"Who goes there?"
"One who seeks the house of Josiah the stonecutter," Legolas answered. "I bring joyful tidings."
Legolas heard one of the shepherds gasp as he stepped into the ring of firelight. "Are you an angel?"
'Ai, Elbereth!' thought Legolas. First a king; now an angel. Tonight was a night for mistaken identities. "I am just a traveler," he said. "From Bethlehem. A babe has been born in the stable there. His mother needs our help." The two men stared at him, as if uncomprehending. Legolas thought perhaps, in his ignorance of the language, his words had come out sounding more like, "Unto us, a child is given."
"I don't know, Jesse," one of them said. "He's either an angel or a madman to be out on a night like this."
"Don't be a lackwit, Daniel --we're out on a night like this, aren't we?" said the other one. "He looks like an angel, but he talks like a madman. A baby in a stable? That's daft."
Legolas took a deep breath. "As I said, a young woman has given birth in the stable of the inn at David's City. She has him wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in one of the mangers. Go there and see for yourself if you do not believe me." Legolas took another, deeper breath. "That is why I am seeking Rachel, the wife of Josiah the stonecutter. Her sister Abigail sent me."
"Oh, Abigail! Why didn't you say so?" said the one called Daniel. "Josiah's house is off that way, down that gully." He pointed off to the west. "I'd go anywhere Abigail sent me, even on a night like this, just to get a smile from her."
Not for the first time that night, Legolas sighed. Abigail's idea of 'north' had been somewhat skewed. "I thank you."
As Legolas wound his way among the sleeping sheep, he heard Daniel say, "I still think he was an angel."
"Or just drunk," Jesse replied. "Either way, the sheep can watch themselves. I'm going to see if what he said is true."
Fortunately, Rachel proved to be a sensible woman who barely turned a hair when a tall stranger knocked at her door in the night bearing odd news and an even odder request. Packing a few blankets and some baby clothing into a bundle and leaving her slumbering children under the supervision of her husband, she set off with Legolas, making no protest about the long walk in the cold.
They arrived back in Bethlehem to find the two shepherds had preceded them, contributing their own supplies of mutton and goat cheese -- a far better meal for a nursing mother than mere bread -- and a sheepskin to shield the infant from the coarse straw of the manger. While Rachel shared her baby items and some private advice with the new mother, Jesse sat on the blanket sharing the last of the wine with Thranduil. Daniel went off into the inn, in hopes of flirting with Abigail.
After a time, Rachel had declined Legolas's offer to see her home, letting the two shepherds escort her on her way. Now, the lantern had burned low. Mary had fed the child again and lay dozing in the straw, still wearing Legolas's cloak. Joseph sat near, his head nodding forward onto his chest. The animals shifted and grunted in their pens. And yet the baby lay awake, as John knelt beside the manger, speaking softly to him.
Thranduil leaned back against a supporting timber and began to croon a song.
"Hush, my little one,
Hush my sweet one.
The Dove coos in the branches,
The Owl hoots in the fir tree,
The stars look down . . ."
Legolas looked over at Galion and smiled. "He used to sing that song over my cradle." The sound of his father's voice had always filled Legolas with peace. It did so now.
Galion nodded and smiled back. "Nana used to sing that lullaby to the two of us over our own cradle. I think they sang that old song back beside the waters at Cuiviénen."
"Hush my little one,
Hush my sweet one.
The journey is long.
There will be an end."
Thranduil fell silent. The baby slept now, and John snored beside him, his head bent forward and resting on the side of the manger.
"Some people have the knack," Galion said. "Time to sleep ourselves. Where?"
"I have an idea," said Legolas, going into the pen to where his camel rested with her legs curled beneath her. He lay down beside her, pillowing his head against her warm flank.
Galion snuggled alongside his own camel. "At least I'll be warm."
Thranduil looked at his camel, who eyed him back benignly. The mood in the stable had become oddly peaceful tonight. "Do we have an understanding, Baarqab? We'll both be on our best behavior?"
The bull camel made no answer. Thranduil shrugged and settled down in the curve of the beast's body.
With a happy sigh, Legolas clasped his arms around himself and drifted into deep dream.
The next morning dawned cool but bright. Out in the courtyard, the sun had burned away the last patches of snow from the cobbles, and meltwater from the eaves of the stable dripped steadily. Legolas and Galion had saddled their mounts and taken them outside, noting that Joseph tactfully made no remark about the lack of morning beard stubble on the three of them.
"He thinks we're eunuchs," Galion snickered, sidelong.
"It wouldn't be for the first time," Legolas whispered back. He got that a lot.
Thranduil stepped out of the doorway, taking a quick sniff at his clothing and making a sour face. "Camel," he said.
"Don't worry, Sire," Galion said. "A few hours' ride in this brisk wind will air you out good and proper."
John trailed behind him, his arms laden. "Lords, Joseph says not to leave without your cloaks. He won't need them now, what with Rachel's blankets."
Legolas accepted his cloak and donned it, expecting to detect the homey odor of mother's milk and baby pee. Instead, he found himself enveloped in the fragrance of roses, bringing back almost forgotten memories of his gardens in Ithilien. He pulled the cloak tightly about himself and inhaled deeply, feeling refreshed by more than the crispness of the morning.
Legolas looked down into upturned brown eyes and put a hand on the small man's shoulder. "Farewell, John," he said, echoing John's blessing to the child. "Be happy, my friend."
He mounted his camel, and the three of them rode out onto the road to Jerusalem. At the top of the hill, Thranduil twisted on his saddle for one last look at the little town below.
"You know," he said, "there have been times over the long-years when I have questioned the wisdom of our decision to turn our backs on the West and embrace the world of Men. The Mortals can be so base to one another, so cruel, that I wonder why I have wasted my efforts on them. And then, as with last night, they surprise me with their unexpected decency. That folks as poor as that can share what little they have with one another. That an old man should be willing to raise the child of another fellow in order to protect a girl. I think that boy will have a good father, no matter who begot him or how."
A wind from the north blew a strand of golden hair across Thranduil's face, and he put up a hand to brush it away. "Their lives are brief but so very precious. Each one of them may make a change for the good -- one of those shepherd lads, or that young mother who shared her goods and her wisdom, or that stableman, for all that he is simple in his wits. Even that baby boy may grow up to do great things, and there is no predicting it. It gives me hope for the future, Legolas."
"I have based my life on hope, Father," Legolas said. "And so far, I have never been disappointed."
"And may you never be," Galion murmured.
Thranduil grinned. "Alas, we will not get home in time for your Begetting Day if we continue to stand in the road and discuss philosophy." He tapped his camel on the shoulder with his stick, urging it into a run. "Hut-hut-hut, Baarqab! On to Jerusalem!"
Baarqab: stud camel
Hayin: tame pack camel
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.