Charlek was lying amongst the horses' straw. His face was grey, his lips blue. I knelt down beside him. I could feel his breath on my cheek. Prince, the Master’s latest stallion, was pawing nervously at the ground.
Charlek stirred a little. He grabbed my tunic and pulled me towards him, until my ear was level with his mouth.
“You must … you must,” he struggled to say. “You must go with the Master. To where the star is taking him.” He made the sign of blessing on my forehead. He took in a long rasping breath. His chest rattled and then he was silent.
“Is he… is he ?” asked Zarib.
I nodded. I had seen a man die once before. My father, too, had collapsed just like that.
So, I was now to be in charge of the stable boys and oversee the grooming of the Master’s fine horses. I was secretly pleased. Not that Charlek had died, you understand - he had been a good friend - but that I could take on this new responsibility. I had dreamt for a long time of being in charge of a stable. I was capable of the task, too. I was fond of Charlek. But his death had at least saved me seeking a new position.
We carried Charlek to his final resting place on a cool clear day. The Master attended but said very little. He did not join in our singing and dancing at the wake. Before he went back to his quarters, he drew me aside.
“Come to me when the celebration is over,” he said.
I went to him that evening. I had never been so close to the Master before. He normally preferred his own company. He had no wife and no children and was never seen with a companion. I gawped at how much taller and younger he looked close to. His beard must have made him seem older before.
I had never been to his rooms. They were like nothing I had ever seen. The walls were covered in blue and red silks. There were thick mats on the floor and the room was furnished with soft chairs and sofas. The Master himself was also clothed in fine silks and satins.
He was looking out of the window through a long tube when I came in. He must have heard me, for he spoke though he did not turn to look at me.
“Mantek. Good, you are here,” he said. “We are to go on a journey.” He still looked out of the window and not directly at me. “Does that suit you Mantek?”
I did not know what to say. I had just taken charge of the stable. I did not want to leave. I wanted to prove I could run everything as well as Charlek had, if not better.
“You are very quiet, Mantek,” he said. “Does the idea of travelling not please you?”
I still could not speak.
Then he turned to me. “Come,” he said, gesturing that I should join him at the window. He pointed towards the sky. “Do you see that star? The one in the East? Brighter than the rest?”
I looked to where he was pointing. I did not know much about the stars, but I could see that this one was shining more brightly than those around it.
“It is a new star,” the Master continued. “We have been waiting for it for hundreds of years.”
Now he looked deeply into my eyes.
“Only three of us will go,” he said. “I shall take only two men I can trust. You are one of those men, Mantek. I know you will look after my horses well. Now go, and prepare yourself and six fine horses for the journey. ”
I was flattered. Not many fifteen year-olds are spoken to as equals by men older than them, let alone by someone as wise and as rich as our Master. But that did not stop me feeling worried about the journey. Good as I was with the horses, I wasn’t sure I could look after them properly away from the comfortable stable. And I was sure that all too soon the Master would find out I was no more than a boy when my competence or my courage, or both, failed.
Two days later we set off at dusk. The star shone brightly even then. We planned to travel mainly by night, so that we could always see the star. I believe it was actually so bright we would have still been able to see it during the day.
All went well at first. I was pleased that I had chosen the right horses. Each day we rode three and three carried our extra supplies. Archamid, the longest-serving of the Master’s other servants, accompanied us. The horses were well-behaved and strong. We made good progress, though I was not sure exactly where we were going. The Master talked to Archamid as though he were a friend and not a servant at all. They said little to me, and I was left to my own thoughts. But they didn’t treat me like a boy and they showed me every respect when they wanted to know about the animals. I was the expert then. I was allowed to do everything for the horses on my own. Except that the master always insisted in packing his own things. Every evening, I saw him place very carefully into his saddlebag. something wrapped in several pieces of cloth
We slept by day. It was warm then and we could get snug in our tents. I was much better cared for there than I was at home: the stable master always sleeps in the stables with the horses. Here, the horses were kept outside the tents and my tent was as fine as those of Archamid’s and the Master’s.
But on the third evening the trouble began.
Archamid was frowning.
“This sand gets everywhere,” he said, shaking some from out of his boot. “We shall look like tramps by the time we find what the star wants to show us.” He complained all the time. It was too cold. The saddle was making him sore. He had no idea where we were going.
The Master said nothing but continued to stare at the star.
By the fourth evening Archamid was even more restless.
“I’m too old for this sort of journey,” he complained. “I should be resting in the comfort of my own little home at my age.” For the rest of that night there were even more moans and groans from him.
Still the Master said nothing. I wanted to argue with Archamid, and tell him he was being selfish, but my Master’s solemn silence would not let me.
On the fifth evening, just as the sun was getting low in the sky and we were loading the horses ready to leave, Archamid started again.
“What will we do when we find the star’s final resting place?” he asked. “Will we find riches there, fit to bring back to our families?”
“There will be no treasure that you will recognise,” said the Master softly.
“What?” cried Archamid. “You are dragging us away from our homes? And there will be no return?” His face was red with anger.
“What you find there will be greater than treasure but you will not be able to pick it up and carry it,” said the Master, again speaking calmly.
“You are fooling me,” said Archamid.
The Master smacked Tangent’s rump hard.
The fine horse bolted, along with Archamid’s belongings.
I wanted to gallop out and retrieve the animal. I mounted Starcrest, his brother, ready to follow. The Master stopped me with the wave of his arm.
“You go and retrieve your belongings,” said the Master to Archamid, “as material goods are so important to you.”
Archamid jumped on Snow and followed Tangent. We watched them disappear into the distance.
“They will not be back,” said the Master. “They are lost to us forever, and I fear that Archamid has lost himself, too, and it will be difficult for him to find the right path again. But you will continue on the journey with me?” he asked.
I nodded. Two of my good horses were lost. I must stay with the other four. “How much longer will it take?” I asked.
The Master looked up at the sky for a few minutes.
“Ten more days, I think,” he said.
I too looked at the star. It was even brighter and bigger than before. I thought it might explode.
We travelled on. The Master did not say much. I occupied myself with the four remaining horses. They covered the miles well. We became used to just following the star. I soon learnt to forget the noises of the day. I relished each dawn the softness of my feather mattress and the comfort of the smooth silk sheets pulled over me. It was easy, really, to sleep in the heat in our cool tents. I always took care to find shade for the horses too.
On the thirteenth night, the star seemed even closer and brighter. The Master stared at it constantly and seemed in a trance. I wondered whether it might be the gentle movement of the horses which had lulled him into his dream state. But I did not feel rocked to sleep. I was wide awake with the stirrings of some great expectation. I had no idea what was to happen, but I sensed the importance of these times.
The sun came slowly up. We made camp as usual. I tied the horses and gave them food and water. The supplies were dwindling, but the Master assured me we would be able to find enough at our destination for the return journey. I gave the animals their full ration and then started to cook a meal for the Master and myself.
“Mantek!” the Master called suddenly. “Listen.”
I heard nothing at first. Then there was a sound. A rustling amongst the trees.
“Take up arms!” shouted the Master.
Two men appeared from the nearby bushes. They had shining swords. I had no weapon on me and although the Master wore a sword, he made no attempt to use it. The rough-looking men jumped at him. He moved his right arm quickly and the taller of the two men bowled over, as if struck by a hard rock. The second charged at the Master who raised his staff which seemed to almost decapitate the shorter of the two men. He let out a piercing cry. The Master looked white with fury. The second rushed forward again, but the Master repelled him as well with the staff. The would-be thief hurtled into our water jug. There was a loud crack. The last of our water trickled on to the sandy ground and disappeared at once. The two men, shaken and bruised, crawled away, muttering curses at my Master. We were safe. But we had no water.
“Do you think we shall hold out?” I asked. “Can we really go any further without water?”
“We have just two more days’ sleep and two more nights’ to travel,” replied the Master. “The Power of the Star will protect us for this time.”
He seemed to believe what he was saying. But I was doubtful. The day-time heat became too fierce as we travelled eastwards and though it was much cooler at night, our bodies needed fluids.
We slept for the rest of that day. The next evening when I saddled the horses, I worried about their lack of water.
“Please forgive me,” I whispered to Stardust and Prince, to Chaser and Gallant. “There is no water tonight.” I’m not sure what those dumb animals thought, but they seemed to appreciate me talking to them. Prince nuzzled my face and all four neighed softly.
At first it was not too bad. We made good progress and I did not feel thirsty. The star shimmered and glistened before us. It carried on becoming brighter and bigger as it had every night. Now, the whole of the Eastern sky was alight.
Then, just before day break, there came a change, however, and I do not know to this day whether it was the lack of water making me hallucinate or whether the whole sky really was filled with men-like creatures that had great feathered wings. They seemed to be made of light. There was sound. Voice music, such as I had never heard before and have never heard since. The Master seemed to move in slow motion. He mouthed something to me, but I could not make out what he said.
I don’t remember stopping to sleep. I do remember waking the next evening. The Master was shaking me.
“Mantek,” he said – I could hear him now, for he was very close to me –“Are you going to sleep all night? Do you not want to see the King’s glory?”
We continued through the last night. The sky was still ablaze with light. I could still hear the singing, but could no longer make out the shapes of the men with wings. There was just light, more and more light. We arrived at a small town. The Master spoke to a woman. They seemed to talk for a long time, and she did not look best pleased. Eventually, she led us to a well. We drank. Then, I filled a trough for the horses. They weren’t as thirsty as I expected, though they did make noises which I thought told me they were glad of the water. The sun would soon be up. The light faded from the sky, leaving the star shining brilliantly agianst a now dark sky. It seemed to point to a low building, a stable perhaps. How odd. Hadn’t the Master said something about a King?
He spoke again to the woman – I couldn’t understand what they said - the people there did not speak our language. She pointed towards the building over which the star shone.
Strangely, the horses seemed to know what to do. With no command from me, they moved steadily towards the building which looked less and less like the home of a King the nearer we got to it. I did not trust the women. I thought she was out to trick us and they we would once again be attacked by thieves – maybe her brothers.
But more and more people were making their way to the same place. If we were being tricked, we weren’t the only ones. The Master seemed to know all the other travellers. Some rode on camels, others on horses, and some as fine as our own, some less so. They all appeared to be bringing gifts, - fine linens, spices, ointments. At last the Master took out what he had kept so closely guarded in Prince’s saddle-bag – a large nugget of the purest gold.
We all moved silently. We did not speak as we approached the birth place of the King. But later, after we had seen the babe, my Master conversed for hours with the other Sages and Wiseman. Again I could not understand what they said but I could tell they were excited to exchange their wisdom about the event.
In the stable we found an ordinary woman and her man, and the baby. He had no crib, nor fine clothes fit for a king. He had no servant, just this older man who I could not believe was His father. But I don’t think I have ever seen such a serene child or such a radiant mother. The light which shone from their faces was brighter even than that of the star and of whatever else I saw in the skies above. This child was a bringer of peace. That much was clear. I just knew it, even though no one told me. Tiny baby that he was, his eyes held mine for a split second and I know he could see right into me, and he understood everything about me. Understood, me yes, - and this is going to sound a bit crazy – no very crazy – he forgave me for the mistakes I’ve made. Now, he only looked at me for a few seconds, but we understood each other in that time, me and him.
And here were all these wise men, kings in their own right, bowing down before Him. We all knew He was going to bring peace to this world. How, I could not imagine, especially from this small place, but as soon as I looked at Him, all desire left me and I felt only deep contentment.
On the way out of the town we met the woman who had taken us to the well and shown us the way to the stable. She spoke for a few minutes to my Master.
“Do you know that woman used to be a prostitute?” said the Master after we’d waved good-bye to her. “That’s why she was wary of us – she thinks all men want only one thing. But she’s just told me she will never go back on the game. One look from that Holy Child was enough.”
Just as one look, just as it had been for me. It didn’t last forever, of course. The rest of my life has not been without its ups and downs, and there has been plenty of agitation with a wife and five daughters to feed and tolerate. But I often think back to the time we followed the star and then I am filled with a delightful calm.
On the way home, the Master told me of the great prophecy that said a Prince of Peace would be born under that star. We’ve heard a little of that Holy Child since. He too has become a man and he performs miracles and tells the priests in His country their business. We had a miracle, I think, on the way home. Our horses travelled lightly. We took five days less to get home than we had taken to go there. We ran out of neither grain nor water. Nor did we meet any thieves.
I think I was meant to see that child. God forgive me, but I think that’s why Charlek had his heart attack. He went in peace and I think he knew. That’s why he gave me his blessing.