AlterNativity - Part 2 - The King Thing (Revised)
It had been a long and arduous journey. Long, because any journey, where you're not really sure where you're going, is bound to be perceived as long. Arduous because they were travelling on camels, and there is nothing more arduous than a camel, especially when you are not really used to camels, or travelling for that matter. But now, they dared to hope that their journey was almost completed. The star that they had been 'following', hung brightly before them and seemed to indicate, as far as a star could indicate anything, that the location they were searching for was just below them.
From the rear of the party, there came a timeless and familiar cry.
"Are we there yet?"
"No, we are not, Melchior, and that is the three hundred and fourteenth time you have asked me that since we set out" Balthazar fumed.
"Alright, alright, keep your crown on dear, just asking" Melchior muttered.
"There's some men walking on the road ahead" Caspar pointed out, "perhaps they might know where we can find him?"
"Ah yes, honest shepherds" Balthazar noted with satisfaction, "just the chaps to have the local knowledge we're looking for. Leave this to me." As his camel drew level with the shepherds, he drew himself up to his full height and leaned forward (which is not easy to do on a camel). Adopting his best 'talking to foreign peasants' accent, he thundered "LO!"
The first shepherd jumped a couple of feet in the air, and the second quickly hid behind him. Rapidly recovering his composure, the first shepherd looked up at the richly dressed man looming above him, crown sparkling in the starlight. He looked back at his companion, jerking his head in the direction of the king, in the time-honoured fashion that has meant "We've got a right one here" down the ages.
"Of course we're 'low' to you, comrade, sitting up there, lording it over us on your camel, whilst we honest artisans are down here with the sheep"
"What did he say?" asked Melchior
"Something about lard, sheep and I think he's called Honest Artie Sans" Caspar hazarded a guess based on his limited knowledge of foreign tongues.
"Ah, a bookmaker!" Melchior noted with satisfaction, "See what odds he's offering on the sex of the baby"
Balthazar, whose knowledge of the local language was somewhat better than his compatriots, ignored their babble and bent to his task.
"WE SEARCH FOR A KING" He bellowed
"What did he say?" asked the second shepherd
"He said they're searching for aching" the first shepherd said with an air of authority
"Shouldn't think they would need to search far, on the back of those things" the second shepherd noted, "I doubt they'll be able to sit down for a fortnight"
"What do you want from us?" the first shepherd reasonably asked
"WE NEED TO KNOW, oh the hell with this, I'll come down" Balthazar gave a shouted command to his camel, which duly ignored him but Melchior's promptly sank to its knees, depositing him unceremoniously on the ground.
"You git, Balthazar!" He yelled as he dusted the sand from his raiment, "that's the third time you've played that trick"
"Sorry about that, old chap" Balthazar apologised, "it's just a matter of getting the inflection right." He tried again, and this time his camel sank to its knees. Regrettably, Melchior's simultaneously sprang up just as he was about to remount, causing him to tumble backwards onto a pile of sheep droppings.
"Now then, as I was saying" Balthazar said to the first shepherd "we are searching for a child"
"We? How many are you?" the first shepherd asked. He had been trying to work this out since their first encounter. Each time he looked, it seemed as if there were a different number of camels and riders. Sometimes more, sometimes less.
"Ah, that is indefinite" Balthazar said enigmatically
"Indefinite? What do you mean, 'indefinite'? You must know how many there are of you?"
"Not at all." Balthazar insisted, "It is not written in The Book, therefore, we are indefinite."
"Have you tried c…c…counting?" the second shepherd asked. The whole unsettling experience had brought back his childhood stutter.
"We can't" Balthazar said smugly "we think it's quantum"
"Quantum? What the hell's quantum when it's at home?" asked the first shepherd.
"Ah well," Balthazar smoothed his beard in a manner that was intended to denote great wisdom, but which only succeeded in adding a good number of camel hairs to his own collection, "in this case, quantum means a situation in which the action of observing something affects the outcome."
"Getaway!" the first shepherd said, disparagingly
"Pull the other one, it's got bells on it" the second shepherd averred with enthusiasm
"What's got bells on it?" the first shepherd enquired
"I dunno" the second shepherd was forced to admit, "It was something my old mum used to say."
"And did hers have bells on it?"
"Oh yes, she was a belly dancer."
None of this exchange had meant anything at all to Balthazar, but he felt he should try to educate these peasants before he went on his way. Noblesse oblige and all that.
"Look, it's like you and your sheep. When you count them, does it always come to the same number?"
"Well, no." the first shepherd admitted, "then again, I fall asleep more often than not when I'm counting and lose track."
"There you are then, that's quantum." Balthazar said with some satisfaction, "you have an indefinite number of sheep"
"I do not have an indefinite number of sheep!" The first shepherd shouted, with feeling "I have 356 sheep, I'll have you know. It just doesn't always work out to that number when I count them."
"Quantum!" Balthazar said triumphantly
"Is that the s..s..same as the w..w..wolf having them?" The second shepherd asked.
"Must be." The first shepherd agreed, "Wouldn't have thought they would have been bold enough to scoff a few kings though"
"To return to my original point" Balthazar said firmly, "Do you know where the royal child is to be found?"
"You reckon there's a royal kid around here somewhere?"
"Pull the other one…"the second shepherd began, and then thought better of it
"Doesn't really seem very likely, does it squire?" the first shepherd pointed out, "All there is here is sheep as far as the eye can see, and that bit of a town. Granted, there's a kid screaming blue murder down there, but it stands to reason it ain't gonna be royalty don't it? Have you tried Herod?"
"What is 'Herod'?" Balthazar asked, half expecting to be told it was a type of embrocation, which, on reflection, he thought, wouldn't be a bad thing.
"Rer..rer..roman b..b..bastard" the second shepherd said with feeling, "Oh, begging Your Grace's pardon" he went to tug a forelock but realised he didn't know what one was.
"Don't be abasing yourself in front of him, brother" the first shepherd said swiftly, "Just 'cause he's turned up with an indefinite number of mates riding camels, doesn't make him no better than you and me"
"Balthy, sweetheart, are we there yet?" Melchior pleaded
"Belt up, Melchior, or I'll make your camel go down on you again" Balthazar snapped.
"Ooh, saucy!" Melchior pouted, "See, I told you he was doing it deliberately" He muttered to Caspar.
"Now," said Balthazar with more patience than he was actually feeling, "what is 'Herod'?"
"Reckons he's King around here" the first shepherd admitted, "I didn't vote for him though. Would have thought he was past it for knocking out nippers, but you never know."
"Then he must be our goal." Balthazar argued confidently, "Where shall we find him?"
"A few miles that way." the first shepherd pointed to the West," Ruddy great palace, you can't miss it"
"That way? Are you sure? Only the horoscope we drew up distinctly said…"
"Oh, horoscope is it?" the first shepherd asked with interest, "What did it say about him then?"
"The child?" Balthazar asked distractedly, "Well, he's a Capricorn"
"S..s..same as me!" The second shepherd said excitedly
"Can you do mine?" The first shepherd asked
"Yes," said Balthazar, climbing unsteadily onto his camel, "You're in for a big surprise."
"Same old tripe they always come up with" the first shepherd muttered disappointedly as an indeterminate number of camels and kings loped into the distance, "you an' all!" he shouted after them.
"Wer..Wer..What do you mean by that?"
"Werl, I can't see Herod being too chuffed when a load of foreign types turn up at his gaff asking to see a new king, can you?"
They walked on, chuckling to themselves.
"You don't think…" the second shepherd began, hesitantly
"What's that, comrade?"
"You don't think this baby down here could be…?"
"This king you mean?" The first shepherd reflected for a moment, "who knows? Got as much right as anyone else, I suppose"
"I was just thinking, you know…a lamb! Doesn't seem much does it?"
"It does to a ewe! Anyway, don't look at me, brother. All I've got is 2 shekels and a packet of fag papers. You should have tapped that lot up for a tip if you wanted to bring anything else. Crack on it’s this year’s must-have toy and we’ve chucked the batteries in too. They’ll love it!"
You can find the first part of the Alternativity(The Night Watch) here
You can find the complete AlterNativity, along with a whole bunch of other seasonal stories, in Philip's collection 'A Christmas Cracker' out now on Amazon Kindle.