Mattanyahu, Yonatan and Yonatan's brat kid brother Ya'akov were ignoring their sheep and were instead engaged in their favourite pastime, making up lurid stories about the women and girls of the village. Mattanyahu had just completed a long and extremely detailed account of how the scribe's daughter had done unspeakable and delicious things to him over the course of a whole night, leaving Yonatan and Ya'akov in awe of his imagination and command of vocabulary and rather feeling the need to urgently go off and check for dangerous animals in a secluded spot for the next few minutes.
'Baaaa,' said a sheep.
Ya'akov threw a stone at it and it scarpered. 'That's disgusting,' he said in an enthralled squeak. 'With her mouth? How can you even bear to make that sort of thing up?'
'Who says I'm making it up?' Mattanyahu grinned. 'Now, d'you remember that Levite that came through the village? Dried up old prune with a face like a fish and a luscious young wife, looking all discontent and unsatisfied? Well, I'm sure your brother didn't want to say anything at the time that might lead you astray, being a little kid and everything, but hell we're not your mother, right? Your turn, Yonatan.'
'Well, that night I checked out the inn,' Yonatan said with a grin, 'and when I peeped in the window what did I see but the poor neglected girl sitting and sighing while her old stick of a husband snored beside her, dead to the world. So I stuck my head in the window and said 'Hello, darling, fancy a good time?' And she looked up, her big beautiful eyes brimming with grateful tears and she said -- what the hell's that?'
'Huh?' Mattanyahu and Ya'akov said, and looked where Yonatan was pointing.
There was a glow in the sky, a bright star hanging directly over the village as it had been for days. Beneath the star the blackness of the winter sky rent asunder and the glories of the heavens were revealed, and stepping lightly down the sky was a tall and bright figure, dressed in old fashioned clothes that shone whiter than any fuller could clean cloth, and the light from its face was such they could not easily make out any features, and it stood in the air above their heads and brightness unfurled and spread out from behind it and they stared up in horrified fascination at the light streaming from the bright feathers. From far above them they could hear a high and wonderful noise that seemed to come from the stars as they hung bright in the winter sky. The terrible and strange figure looked down at them from its peculiarly colourless eyes and raised its hands as if it were praying, and in a voice that sounded like bells or like flames or like the distant roar of a lion, said 'Fear not.'
Mattanyahu, Yonatan and Ya'akov fainted.
'Oh, wonderful,' Aziraphale said.
Balthasar, Caspar and Melchior rode wearily along the road, their camels swaying beneath them and their slaves silent and exhausted behind them. It was a cold road from Jerusalem, and they weren't that pleased to have left the city behind them. It had been full of light and people and warm buildings and a king who had greeted them kindly and passed them goblets of wine with his own hand. It had been a real blow to the three of them to have the king look quizzically at them and say no, he had no children or grandchildren recently born or about to be born.
'Our calculations are quite precise,' Balthasar had said peevishly. 'And that's even without the more recent celestial evidence. All the signs quite clearly point to the fulfilment of prophecies. I'm telling you, he who will be the greatest king of Yehud will be born this season.'
'Fascinating,' King Herod said, a meek and respectful look in his eyes. 'The greatest king, you say? You must spend the night as my guests and allow me, I pray you, to reprovision your expedition to the best of my poor abilities. When you find this king, come back and tell me where he is - I would very much like to see him with my own eyes.'
The next day, when they had left laden down with provisions and gifts Balthasar and Caspar had sung their host's praises for mile upon mile, but Melchior remained silent, remembering how when he had looked back a courtier had been whispering in Herod's ear and Herod had no longer looked meek and respectful in the slightest. And Melchior thought on how everyone said that Herod had danced a dangerous dance between the great powers of Rome and Egypt and had won himself a kingdom while somehow being friends with Roman generals on both sides of the bloody struggle out of which the empire had been born. Herod was Rome's creation and Rome's creature, and Melchior shuddered at what might befall Parthians who walked into his lair a second time.
They had all been silent for hours now, half asleep and seeing the world pass by as if it were far away, hearing nothing but the weary tread of the camels' feet. Even the guards and slaves had finally no longer possessed the energy to speak to one another, but simply trudged along in their masters' wake. Melchior found himself dreaming while still awake, imagining that they were approaching his house and that he would soon no longer be cold, but would be welcomed by his wives and his concubines. An icy draught insinuated itself inside his clothing and he woke briefly, cursing Balthasar in his heart. They should have travelled like gentlemen, taking at least a portion of their households with them, but Balthasar had spoken of the need for haste and so not one of them had a wife along to soothe his troubles away.
It was almost a relief to see the figure detach itself from the shadows by the side of the road and stroll lazily up to them. The guards bestirred themselves in case bandits accompanied the man, but no one else came forward. The man was tall and thin, and although his features seemed to Melchior much like those of the people of Yehud he was very pale.
'I need to have a word with you,' the man said, laying a hand on the neck of Balthasar's camel, which immediately tried to bite him.
'Bugger!' the man said, ducking around the camel quickly, coming into the moonlight more clearly.
Melchior drew a quick gasp of breath. His eyes were a flat, solid yellow with a vertical slit pupil. The man looked him full in the face and grinned wickedly.
'Hi there,' Crowley said.
'Now, are you all feeling a bit better?' Aziraphale asked solicitously.
The shepherds clung together and made noises that he thought he should interpret as assent, given that time was getting on.
'Good, good,' he said cheerfully. 'Ahem. Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.'
They gibbered a little at him, and he gave them an encouraging smile.
'It's an angel!' Ya'akov shrieked, and fainted again.
From very high above him, Aziraphale heard the sound of laughter drifting down. He was sure the humans would describe it as a silvery shiver or some such poetic nonsense. It sounded bloody sarcastic to him. He ignored it, and brought Ya'akov back to consciousness.
'It's all right, dear. Nothing to be ashamed of, I'm sure I'd feel a bit off if I suddenly saw an angel - if I wasn't actually one myself, you understand. Oh dear. Look, all of you, stop fainting!'
He got them all conscious again and reconsidered the whole standing in mid air business, as it seemed to be distracting the poor fellows. Crowley always said that humans just got distracted by the little things. Like the wings, for example. On the other hand this was official business, and he'd been told quite plainly that a full-scale angelic appearance was what was required. He dimmed the radiance a little and stepped down a few feet and sighed as they all shrank back in terror.
'What bit of "Fear not" was unclear?' he asked testily. 'Look, it's very simple. I want you to go to the city of David -'
'All the way to Jerusalem?' Mattanyahu said in horror. 'Er, my lord?' he added quickly.
'No need to stand on ceremony, dear boy,' Aziraphale said, 'some of us aren't even standing on the ground, ha ha! Oh for Heaven's sake, can't you lot stay conscious for more than a minute at a time?'
Once they were all awake and paying attention again he gave a rather forced smile and pointed down the hillside. They didn't seem all that bright, and he wished he could muster up a concise and motivating air of menace like Crowley's. On the other hand, they'd probably just faint again.
'Bethlehem. The city of David is Bethlehem. That place. Go down there, and you will find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. Take a nice fluffy lamb and -'
'Why do you keep switching out of Aramaic?' Yonatan blurted. 'You sound like the rabbi in synagogue.'
Aziraphale fixed him with a stern glance.
'Given your topics of conversation,' he said in Aramaic, 'I very much doubt that any of you have seen the inside of a synagogue for some considerable time. I advise you to change your ways. Now,' he went on, 'down the hill you go with a nice lamb. Go on, shoo.'
They seized a lamb at random and fled down the hillside. Aziraphale watched them go and thought the animal fluffy and clean. The laughter from above was louder and many voiced, and Aziraphale was very glad to wrongfoot them by bursting into song and making them follow a beat behind the note. The shepherds faltered and looked back and stood entranced for a moment. Aziraphale didn't bother looking over his shoulder. He knew what they were seeing, and anyway he was concentrating on making sure that none of them fainted again. They turned and ran even faster. At least the intense light from behind them meant they weren't going to trip over an unseen obstacle and break their necks.
He put them out of his mind, closed his eyes and sang in purest ecstasy.
'And that's the quickest way back east,' Crowley finished. 'Any questions?'
Balthasar looked down at him, blinking the sleep from his eyes.
'Who are you, again?' he asked. 'And what makes you think you can just order us out of Yehud?'
'I'm a friend,' Crowley said with a winning smile. 'I'm saving your necks, you know. You really don't want to go back to Jerusalem, trust me.' He put his hands behind his back and looked as sincere and honest as he could.
'Don't presume to tell us what we should do!' Balthasar said huffily. 'Our affairs are beyond the understanding of some beggar by the side of the road.' He threw an insultingly small coin at Crowley.
'Out of the way, man!' Caspar said sternly.
Crowley pursed his lips and glared at the coin, which melted. This was not how he had planned on spending his evening, but the angel was too dim and trusting, and it hadnever occurred to him that some people might not be too pleased to get the wonderful news. He didn't seem to realise that human politics involved bloodshed, and it didn't particularly matter to someone like Herod if he shed kiddies' blood. Which was why Crowley had taken it on himself to help the angel out, although he sincerely hoped Aziraphale never discovered he'd done this. With what he thought of as commendable patience, Crowley looked up with a mild expression.
'Herod's a fruitcake,' he said. 'Just don't go back that way, all right?'
He watched the richly dressed men looking at him in suspicion and muttering among themselves.
'We told him we'd report back,' Melchior said, far more politely than his companions.
Crowley sighed. He could feel a headache building. 'No,' he said. 'You're not going to. He'll probably have you killed, you know.'
'But the stars didn't foretell that! And the stars have been accurate in all of this,' Balthasar said angrily.
Crowley rolled his eyes, struck a dramatic pose and unfurled his wings. He was immensely gratified to see every single one of the buggers shriek and fall to their knees.
'An angel!' Balthasar cried.
'A deva!' Caspar moaned.
'A demon!' Melchior whispered, suddenly wondering how he could have forgotten the horrible yellow eyes.
'Close enough,' Crowley said. He amused himself by watching the rich men and their servants prostrate themselves for a while then kicked the rich men into a more or less upright kneeling position. 'Right. You are not going back to Herod, got that? You're just going to drop off your presents and then you're going to get lost. Go home and don't look back.'
'Aren't you supposed to tell us we shouldn't be afraid?' Balthasar said in a shaking voice.
Crowley leaned down and stared unblinkingly into his eyes from a very close range.
'What do you think?' he hissed.
Balthasar fainted, and Crowley surveyed the others. 'Everybody clear on what's going to happen?' he asked. They nodded frantically and he gave them a thin and humourless smile. 'Good. Put your friend on his camel and get out of my sight.'
They took off at high speed, leaving Crowley alone in the cold dark. He looked around at the miserable countryside, feeling mildly depressed. If anyone ever found out what he'd just done - well, he wasn't going to think about it. He needed a drink.
It was a bitterly cold night, the kind of night anyone would be glad to be indoors. Crowley and Aziraphale were standing out in the frost, but they weren't letting it bother them. Their attention was firmly held by the overcrowded stable, with its rich men and poor shepherds all jostling each other and peering over each other's shoulders. A wailing high-pitched cry wavered out from the stable, making Aziraphale smile soppily and Crowley frown nervously.
'Come on,' Crowley said, 'we shouldn't hang around.'
'Just a moment longer, dear,' Aziraphale said. 'It's not like this happens every day, after all.'
'Thank G- . . . good,' Crowley said. 'Come on, Aziraphale. This is - this is human stuff now.'
Aziraphale turned to look at him, a quizzical expression on his face. 'This changes everything, doesn't it?' he asked.
Crowley shivered as the cry came again and the men crowding into the stable exclaimed in cheerful awe. 'Does it?' he asked. 'I mean, do you want it to?'
Aziraphale didn't say anything for a very long time, then he shivered theatrically.
'Goodness, it is getting a bit chilly,' he said. 'Let's get warm and have something to drink, shall we?'
'There's an inn right there,' Crowley said with a grin. 'It's a bit crowded, mind.'
'Oh, I'm sure they can squeeze us in,' Aziraphale said cheerily. 'After you, dear boy.'
Smiling at each other they left the yard and went in to the warmth and light.
Overhead the star burned on, cold and white and distant.