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Star Bound

A Christmas story by Alison Lloyd

Star Bound

‘The people living in darkness have seen a great light.’

For half a year, I’ve been riding behind my master in the dark and every step is in the wrong direction. The camels growl and grumble, the saddlery creaks, and the wind whispers that we’re lost. Our footfalls spook me – the crunch of stones is swallowed in the vast dark. The desert night has no edges. It goes on forever, without horizons. We wouldn’t know which way is up, not to speak of east and west, without the stars, that unreachable plain of diamonds over our heads. When clouds black out the sky, we don’t travel. We might walk over the edge of the world.

Every night I think of making a run for it. I want to go back to daylight – to four walls, a courtyard, even the mistress’s complaints. But a runaway can’t return home. So as I pitch and sway, I tell myself our story as a distraction, practising my tale of adventure for future generations, who I conjure up in spite of everything.

Our caravan is heavy laden. We’ve got a king’s ransom of gold and spices in our saddlebags. It’s heavy as rocks to load. When I mount the camel and throw my leg over the bags, my skin prickles to think there’s only leather between me and that pure wealth, extracted and concentrated, packed in tight. We keep the cargo quiet. Even more so, now we’re approaching the edge of the empire.  

I never thought we’d travel this far. We’ve nearly reached Judea. My master (grey-haired, billowing robe and imperious nose) says it’s a province which we, meaning the Parthian empire, lost to the Romans before I was born. Lord Awil (him up the front, pointed teeth and ears, like a fox) let on to the military escort that we’re on a political trip. Doing a hush-hush deal, he said, parleying with the puppet king who rules Judea for the Romans. That’s dangerous enough to keep the soldiers’ mouths shut.

The truth is weirder. My master is a royal adviser, of sorts. A magus of the old style, a Zoroastrian priest. Feet on the earth, head in the clouds. He studies the stars. One evening last summer, he came down from the rooftop with a freaky spark in his eyes, the silver wire of his beard glittering in the torchlight. Watching the stars has made him holy, people say back home.

‘The star of stars,’ he said. ‘For the king of kings. It’s in the sky.’

‘You’re fevered,’ his wife retorted. 

She hung charms around the door and his bed, which had as much effect as fleas on a dog – annoyed him, didn’t stop him. He had ghostlight in his eyes through autumn. He stayed up all night, then went to court in the morning. He was lobbying, he told me when I mixed his ink and ran his messages.

Most of the courtiers didn’t want to know, called him an old fool. His friends told him to keep quiet, for his own good.

‘The star in ascendance round here is Queen Musa,’ they advised. ‘She’s got the throne marked for her son. He’ll be the next king.’

But the Master is about as flexible as a sword when the mood takes him. I sometimes think he would die for his beliefs. Other times he’s just an old man with constipation and gout.

Maybe when the Shah saw the star for himself, he feared the gods. Or maybe, as Lord Awil said, the Shah was hoping the star would lead us to the gates of Rome. That’s where another three of the Shah’s sons are exiled, to keep them away from Queen Musa, and the throne. I’ve learned something of politics, more than I have of stars. Every slave dreams of being king. But I can tell you, the closer you get to court, the more it takes the shine off your daydreams.

Anyway, the Shah listened. He authorised an expedition – follow the new star to the new king, sweeten him up with gifts, buy his good will. He put Lord Awil in charge.

The master wasn’t happy. His hooked nose was badly out of joint. Lord Awil thinks the Master is moonstruck. ‘A fool’s chase,’ he calls our trip. ‘Superstition. A waste of time and resources.’ Lord Awil is the first to complain when the food is bad, or the wash-water is dank. He’s a mean piece. I got a new burn on my left arm when he threw an oil lamp at me for slow service.  

That was enough for me to mutter to the master, nursing my wrist against my chest, at the tail of the caravan. ‘Why’s he here, even? Why didn’t he stay home?’

The master’s saddle creaked. I flinched. The master was within his rights to give me one over the ear with his riding crop, for complaining. Or for anything else.

But only his voice came at me from the dark. ‘He doesn’t want to be here, boy. He’s the Shah’s man, sent to watch me. Don’t you pity him?’

Him? What about me? When did I get the option to come or no?

‘Be glad you’re a eunuch,’ the Master said.

Took me a moment to think through before my stomach turned. It’s the first time I’ve had reason to be glad of that.

We’re heavy laden, the lot of us. Me, I’m loaded with homesickness. Not just for daylight and a bed, but for a life I’ll never have – for a wife, for children, for choice. Lord Awil wants to go home too. He carries the court in his head, like a board game. He’s afraid the pieces will move while he’s away.

The master is loaded with hope. Or obsession, is how Lord Awil sees it. The star will lead us to the King of Kings, who will rule the world and right all wrongs. He’ll bring the dawn of everlasting day, the victory of good over evil. Potent stuff, and the master’s more than slightly drunk on it. He eats less and less the further we go. He won’t allow a torch or a brazier at midnight rest stops.

‘Our eyes will get comfortable,’ he said. ‘We won’t be able to read the sky.’

I only asked the once, a hundred miles back, how much further he thought the journey was going to be. He didn’t know, so he didn’t like being asked. He hit me across the shoulder with his staff. It didn’t hurt much compared to the burn, but I lost faith in him. I stole a water canteen and started walking, in the day while the caravan slept. Before the sun was down, I was rounded up by locals, who trussed me like a sheep, and sold me back to the master.

He didn’t say much. He only told me to brew something for his stomach, because pain had got the better of him. That’s as close to an apology as I’ll ever get. I brewed the herbs thick, but I didn’t put many poppy seeds in for fear he’d fall from his camel. The best way to get home safe is to keep going, I decided.

It can’t be far now. At dusk, the star is a golden slash just above a purple rim of hills. By historical accounts, Lord Awil says, Judea is a narrow strip, a fingernail hanging on to the edge of the world. He thinks we’ll reach the Western Sea with the star still in front of us, before we have time to scratch our backsides. He’s not a donkey, he says, to chase a dangling carrot off a cliff. My guess is he’ll be pleased if we fail. He’d prefer there is no King of Kings.

But what then? I wouldn’t be surprised if the Master rode his camel into the sea, or onto a leaky skiff, not looking down to see if his feet are wet. Word in the caravanserai has it that Herod of Judea is at Herodium, his palace in the desert. Over these hills. So we have altered course. Lord Awil has decreed Herodium is next stop. The star is over our shoulders, to the northwest, instead of in front of us. My master’s mouth is working, chomping at the bit, and his beard juts forward. Every man has his master and Lord Awil is his.

‘Very well,’ he told the courtier. ‘I will ask the Jewish court, where is the one born to be your king?’

Lord Awil almost choked. This was a matter for diplomacy, he argued. Didn’t the magus realise Herod wasn’t born a king, or a Judean? He’d been shoe-horned onto the throne by the Romans. He’d take it as an insult and a threat. ‘They’ll have our heads,’ he said.

‘I’ll take that risk.’ The master’s obsession is burning him away, consuming him from the inside. The hollows around his eyes are ghoulish. He looks like he’s only a few steps from the underworld.


The palace is a fortress, it turns out, built on a hill. We’re behind white stone walls. Massive towers at each corner watch the villages across the valley, watching for the Romans, watching for us, the other empire. We have walked right in, but who knows whether we’ll walk out. The feeling of being trapped takes the shine off the daylight. The walls chafe. I might have been wrong about getting home safe.

The Judeans won’t touch us. Not because we smell like camels. It’s religious – we’re unclean. At least they speak Aramaic. They received us politely and put us up in the palace. We left the camels and their cargo outside the fortress walls, guarded by the soldiers. Herod is entertaining Lord Awil and the master. Soldiers and slaves are not invited.

The star is bigger than ever, so low it almost touches the earth. Tonight, I can’t tell whether it’s yellow or red. It’s like a spark about to set the world alight. 


The Master did ask about their new king. He said it was as if he’d drawn a blade in the banquet hall. The Judean ruler looked ready to vomit bile all over them. But Herod had seen the star, and he believed the master about it being a portent. Or he pretended to. He had the Judeans’ own priests fetched. They said, going by their prophecies, this king should be born in some little town called Bethlehem.

‘So now we’re following foreign superstition and a single wandering star,’ Lord Awil said, when they returned to our sleeping quarters, reeking of wine and lamb.

‘Yes,’ my Master said, ‘and both in the same direction.’ Which clinched it. Lord Awil wanted to get out of the fortress anyway.


We’re heading away from Herodium, into the dark again. I can’t feel my hands on the pommel for the cold. I can’t see Lord Awil in the lead, or my master who is up there beside him. The wind is moaning through the thornbushes, as if it is raked with pain, sliced on the brambles’ jagged limbs. Or is it lamenting that there is only emptiness and dark at the end of our journey? Perhaps it’s sighing, breathing down our necks, telling us to hurry. I can’t tell. The star itself seems to be slipping, losing its purchase on the sky and sinking, heading for burial below the horizon. Not promising.

We’ve nearly reached the town – the village – we wouldn’t know it was there except a dog hears us and starts up. Now there’s a pack of them sending up a racket. We pass through a cluster of houses, an invisible windbreak. Then suddenly the star flares and is gone behind a hillock.

We stop.

‘That’s it,’ Lord Awil says, his voice thin and bitter as smoke.

The camels can smell fodder and water and they are restless, blowing their lips.

‘Yes!’ the master says. I hear him clump his heels against his camel’s flanks. The camel picks its way across a slope of scree and rounds the hillock. I follow. He is my master after all, and we have come this far. I honour his starstruck insanity.  

So I get to see them, just after he does, before Lord Awil. In a courtyard, in front of a hovel hollowed out of the hill, a girl is prodding a tiny charcoal fire. She is a slip of a thing, hunched in a man’s robe, which is slung over her shoulders for warmth. She is clutching a child to her, swaddled in rags.

My master makes his camel kneel, and dismounts before he asks, ‘Is that your son? The king of the Jews?’

The girl breathes in sharply. But she doesn’t run or cry for help. ‘Yes,’ she says, in a low voice, as if the word weighs heavy.

When the master hears the girl’s confirmation, he doesn’t just kneel. He prostrates himself full length on the stony ground. Of course I follow suit. So does Lord Awil, when he sees what’s going on.

Later, we unload everything in the saddle bags, pile it up in the courtyard next to the firewood and the carpenter’s saw-horse. The girl and her husband are wide-eyed.

I keep looking at the baby. He’s a beautiful child, his eyes dark and starry as the night. When Lord Awil and the rest take their leave, I touch a finger to my lips and then the child’s feet. That’s as close as I dare come. I’d swear he smiles.


We don’t go back via the Judean court. Too dangerous for all concerned. Except my master, who is beyond danger from Herod, or any man. His triumph keeps him upright until we climb over the hills, in the daylight this time. But the first night in Parthian territory, he lies down beside the fire and finally burns out, like a log does, when the glowing coals collapse on themselves.

I made it back with Lord Awil – but I go out each night and look up. I can’t forget that star, riding ahead of us, rising out of the west above the bleak desert, where the sun sinks to its grave, where the master is buried. I travelled half a year of my life in shadow. And I know there’s darkness of worse depths that can get in your soul. Fear, pain, and grief haunt the courts of kings, as well as the huts of slaves. But I saw that star, and at its end I saw the child.

‘Why do we have to travel at night?’ I asked the Master once, long miles from the beginning, and from the end. ‘Can’t we guess? Estimate the direction?’

‘No,’ he said. ‘Stars move. We must walk in the dark, where we’ll see its light.’

The star is gone, but the child’s days have begun. I wish him well, the baby king. It can be a long, rough trip, this life, travelling home to light through darkness.

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