• All the short stories on the blog
• The whole of a peak-oil novel, FAR Future, written as blog posts from 2012–2045
• A novel in progress, White Pickups, of people surviving in a depopulated world
Today I give you a Christmas-themed story, based loosely on the events described in Matt. 2:13–16.
For This Night
The soldiers stepped out onto the dark narrow street. They took their positions: back to back, waiting for their eyes to adjust. Their ears needed no time to adjust — throughout the village they could hear shouting and the screams and wails of bereaved mothers.
“This is no work for soldiers, Odo,” one said. “Thugs, perhaps. I may just fall on my sword rather than stain it with another drop of innocent blood.”
Odo was quiet for a moment, watching the shadows. “Others command, Kleon. It is ours to obey,” he said at last.
“And that is all this is to you? Obedience? No. No man could be unmoved by this… work.”
Odo was silent for a moment. “I must admit, Kleon,” he said at last, “I’m relieved that last one was a girl.” He paused again. “Upholding honor is not often easy.”
“Honor? Bah. We served in the Nile campaign, we faced the Saracen horde in the desert — and history will remember us for this night, if she remembers us at all. A night of killing innocent boy-children in a backwater town, at the whim of a mad kinglet.”
“Seditious talk is good for the soul, my friend. But one should take care where it is spoken.” Kleon heard the smile in Odo’s voice. “But is not this king Greek? Like you?”
Kleon spat. “Any barbarian can learn Greek. Even a Gaul.” Odo snorted. “But to be Greek — that is something more. A true Greek would not order all boy-children of a village slain out of hand, especially if that village had offered no rebellion.”
“Perhaps. But this barbarian Gaul can now see the street. Shall we continue?”
“I shall —” Kleon hissed. “Something ahead,” he whispered. “Forward, but quietly!”
The soldiers kept to the shadows, their quarry unaware of their presence until Kleon and Odo were upon them — a young man leading a donkey, which in turn carried a woman. In the dim light, Kleon saw she hid something under her cloak and sighed.
Perhaps seeing his Nemesis, the man dropped the lead and held his staff cross-wise. He hissed something at the woman, but she only sat and watched wide-eyed. Foolish woman, Kleon thought, her husband would buy her life — and their son’s — with his own, but she will sit there and lose her son as well.
“Caesar’s soldiers!” Odo snapped in the local language. “What is your business? Be quick about it!”
“We are… travelers.” Kleon was mildly surprised that he spoke passable Greek — a tradesman then, a tentmaker or carpenter. His accent suggested he was telling the truth. “From Galilee. Going to Egypt.”
“It’s past curfew,” said Kleon. “Bandits are out.”
The woman said something, too quick for the soldiers to catch. “What did she say?” Odo demanded.
The man looked amused, but did not let down his guard. “She said with all the soldiers in the streets tonight, bandits are the least of our worries.”
“Woman. What are you hiding in your cloak?” Their eyes grew wide; the man shifted his footing a little. His face was that of one expecting to die shortly, but would do what he could to buy the seconds needed for his family to live.
“If it’s not a weapon, it is of no concern,” Kleon said quickly. “Is it?”
The woman shook her head. “No.”
“Then go about your business,” said Kleon. “But do not travel through Bethlehem — things are unsettled tonight. The nearest gate is that way.” He pointed. “And things are much the same in Jerusalem. You would do best to go overland to the coast. Take a ship, if you have the means.”
The man nodded. “I give thanks for your advice. And your mercy.” He took up the lead and they departed the way Kleon had pointed.
“What have you done?” Odo demanded.
“I have followed our orders. To the letter, like a good soldier,” Kleon smiled. “Boy-children of Bethlehem under two years of age are to be slain this night. We were not ordered to slaughter Galileans.”
“I am not convinced. What if you just let flee the child that Herod was concerned with? Then all else we have done tonight is pointless.”
Kleon nodded. “True, my friend. And that is how it should be.”