A stout man and a thin man walked the road to Bethlehem in silence. Above them, a full moon shone and stars blazed across the sky. Around them, dusty slopes stretched up into the night, gray in the moonlight, broken by trees and rocks and tufts of grass.
The stout man paused to gaze upward. “Turn your eyes to the stars, Jehu,” he said, puffing and wiping his brow. “Their beauty tonight is beyond compare.”
“To gehenna with the stars,” replied the thin man, looking resolutely downward. “We have no time for them. Keep moving, Benjamin.”
Panting, Benjamin spared enough breath to gasp in indignation. “You must not malign the works of the Most High. The heavens declare the glory of God, as it is written in the psalms. The skies proclaim the work of God’s hands. Day after day they pour forth speech—”
“Not unlike a fat old man of my acquaintance,” said Jehu, scowling at his companion. “I have heard enough of your prattle. We are near Bethlehem, and I beg you to hold your tongue until we get there.”
They walked on. Wind swished the grass and made branches creak. From over the hills came the faint noise of sheep bleating and men chatting, the sounds of a shepherd’s camp. As Jehu and Benjamin plodded along, their shadows stretched out before them, sharply black in the moonlight.
Jehu brought forth a sword from under his cloak and began to twirl it. Benjamin took a few steps back. “Do not fear me,” said Jehu. He smiled, which Benjamin did not find comforting. “Whom you must fear, Benjamin, are the bandits. Like the accursed Romans, they prey upon the weak and helpless.”
“Are we in danger?” whispered Benjamin.
“You are, perhaps,” said Jehu. “Fortunately for you, I am neither weak nor helpless. Stay close to me and you may live to see the lights of Bethlehem.”
Keeping a wary eye on the sword flashing in the moonlight, Benjamin moved a little closer to Jehu.
At last, as they came over the crest of a hill, they saw the lamps and fires of Bethlehem twinkling like golden stars far ahead. Still gasping for breath, Benjamin mumbled, “God be praised.”
Jehu said nothing and did not put away his sword.
“I am not a nervous man,” said Benjamin nervously. “Nevertheless, I admit to feeling perhaps just an echo of fear on this dark, dangerous road. It is good to see lights ahead. They speak to me of food and fire and wine—God preserve us, what is that?”
Jehu held his sword before him and peered into the darkness. “Benjamin, what do you see?”
“I see a cross. Some poor fool has been crucified.”
Jehu sighed and sheathed his sword. “Your eyes deceive you, old man. It is nothing but a pillar and crossbeam of wood. There is a cave in the rock. Someone must use it for a stable or storehouse. The cross you see is a support to keep the mouth of the cave from crumbling.”
“It is an omen,” said Benjamin, clutching Jehu’s sleeve. “The Almighty gives you this sign, Jehu. Your plans are folly. Turn away from them! Abandon your dreams of revolution, or a cross will become your future.”
“That is not a cross,” said Jehu, tearing his sleeve out of Benjamin’s grip. “That is a pillar and crossbeam. Only a fool—or a poet, which is no different—can look upon it and see an instrument of death. Gather your wits and stop babbling.”
Benjamin rubbed his face, wiping away sweat and tears. “I am concerned for you, Jehu. You were once my cousin, before you forsook all ties to family. You may not value your life, but I do.”
“We have wasted time enough,” said Jehu. “Bethlehem awaits.”
As they passed the mouth of the cave, they were startled by a cry from within.
“Is that the sound of a child?” whispered Benjamin.
Jehu’s face was grim. “There,” he said, pointing.
Moonlight poured into the cave, illuminating all but the farthest corners. The pillar and crossbeam supporting the ceiling cast the ruthless black shadow of a cross. A manger stood in the shadow. A woman knelt beside the manger. A man stood nearby, holding out a lamp that flickered uselessly in the moonlight.
“By Joseph’s bones,” murmured Benjamin. “A baby in a manger. In such dangerous times as these, what spirit of madness possessed these fools to take refuge in a filthy cave?”
“The Roman census,” said Jehu. “These fools left their home and dragged themselves across the country for this, a stable reeking of manure, because Rome told them to. Why does this child have no better bed than a cattle trough? The answer is simple. Rome felt it necessary to know exactly how many people are left in this country for her to grind beneath her heel.”
“You should not say such things, Jehu.”
“Why should I be silent? Look at that child. He lies in the shadow of a cross. He will live in the shadow of a cross. Unless we rise against Rome, we too shall live in the shadow of a cross, that bloody emblem of Roman brutality.”
Having regained his breath, Benjamin heaved a long, sad sigh. “You sound more like a zealot every day, Jehu. You have certainly mastered the rhetoric of the revolutionary. No, I do not wish to hear more,” he added as Jehu opened his mouth to reply. “I do not want to be told of Rome’s cruelties or your plans to repay them. I want safety and supper and a warm bed. I want to go home to my wife and daughter. Let us leave.”
They left the cave.
Chapter Two can be found here.
I wrote Zealot: A Christmas Story about a year ago because there are not enough Christmas stories about assassins.
When we think of the first Christmas, a stable and shepherds and wise men are usually the first things to come to our minds. In our imaginations, the Nativity exists in its own little bubble. As I wrote this story, I had great fun giving the Nativity its historical context, from the predictions of ancient prophets to the struggles of brave revolutionaries. At the heart of this story lies one man, a zealot, whose life of blood and secrecy begins to change when he meets a child born in the shadow of a cross.
Zealot: A Christmas Story will be posted in short chapters, one each Wednesday, until early January. Regular TMTF posts will continue to be posted on Mondays and Fridays.
Thanks for reading!