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‘I think I’ll reserve judgement as to that until we have completed, at the very least, a basic exploration of the immediate vicinity,’ answered Dr Who, as he and his granddaughter followed John through the trees and bushes.

They soon reached the periphery of what was not, in fact, a jungle but a fair-sized grove. The Doctor drew aside a curtain of obscuring foliage in order to provide them with a view of what lay beyond.

‘It’s quite a view,’ John remarked after some moments, still intent upon making the best of it.

His sister gazed doubtfully at the prospect before them.

The uneven ground, sloping gradually downwards from the grove, consisted of dust and scattered stones before levelling out at what might be a track of sorts, its surface looking different, more like hard-packed sand. Intermittent clumps of vegetation, visible on the far side of it, completely lacked the exuberance of nature’s offerings in the grove. In the background were hills and valleys, of a dusky yellow flecked with patches of white, with only occasional touches of green. Perhaps, Gillian thought, fanciful all at once, it was a piece of scenery by an artist who couldn’t be bothered to mix any more green paint and had made what he had last. She smiled, pleased and rather cheered by the thought. Yes, he had used all his green on the thick growth they had just pushed their way through… 

When they stood on the stony land above the sandy trail Dr Who’s eyes fell upon three dark, slender trees, high on a hill quite some distance away to his left and silhouetted against the sky. His gaze continued for some reason to dwell on them. What did the way they were positioned remind him of?

John’s voice broke into his thoughts. ‘Grandfather…’

The Doctor turned. ‘What is it, my boy?’

John leaned forward a little and squinted. ‘I’m sure I saw things moving…yes, you can just make them out. Riders, I think.’ He pointed, away to their extreme right.

‘Oh yes,’ Gillian concurred. ‘Well spotted, John.’

Dr Who’s long-distance eyesight, despite his age, was as good as theirs. ‘Dear me, yes.’

‘Hard to tell how many there are. Wait till they get a bit closer,’ advised John.

‘They’re not travelling very fast,’ Gillian observed.

John laughed. ‘That rules out the cavalry, then.’

The Doctor frowned at this levity. ‘It’ll be quite a time before they reach us, certainly, so I suggest we walk in their direction.’

‘But Grandfather, do we want to meet them?’ queried Gillian. ‘They might not be friendly.’

‘How else are we to ascertain exactly where we are and in what period of time, child?’

Gillian sighed inwardly. If it meant safety she would have been happy never knowing.

The trio set off.

‘We’ve lost sight of them now,’ complained John, after a fairly lengthy trek.

Gillian nodded wearily. ‘It’s because we’ve come down into this valley.’

‘We’ll soon pick them out again when we return to higher ground,’ Dr Who stated confidently. ‘Come, let us press on.’

Eventually, after an ankle-wrenching climb and another, shorter traipse John stood on a hill topped with sparse sand and a few miserable weeds struggling to survive. He gave a triumphant cry.

‘I can see them!’

The Doctor and his granddaughter were still clambering up the hill. ‘How far away are they now?’ called Gillian.

‘Not too far. There are four of them, on camels.’

John gazed at the quartet riding sedately along, outlined against the sky. Gillian arrived to stand beside him. ‘One less and they might have been the three wise men.’ She smiled reminiscently. ‘Last year’s nativity play at school was quite good, wasn’t it?’

‘With the wise men being directed to Bethlehem by a tinfoil star suspended from a piece of gym equipment?’

Gillian frowned. ‘You always poke fun. Miss Leeson worked really hard to get it all done on time.’

‘Checking everything with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?’

Dr Who interposed. ‘As a matter of fact, my dear boy, only Matthew mentions the wise men, or Magi.’

‘I didn’t know that, Grandfather.’ John’s voice held a genuine flicker of interest now.

‘I wore a blue shawl and played a woman who took the last bed at the inn,’ Gillian continued, undeterred by the interruption. ‘You were the innkeeper,’ she added, eyeing her brother censoriously.

John smirked. ‘Yes. That was a laugh.’

‘You stood by the doorway and whispered to everyone going in that it was fish and chips or nothing, take it or leave it, and if they wanted mushy peas it was sixpence extra. All that giggling started then. Joanna Coombes told Miss McGovern all about it the next day.’

‘That sickening, goody-goody and her snitching!’ John exclaimed disgustedly.

‘I couldn’t stand her, myself,’ Gillian admitted.

The Doctor tutted. ‘All this chatter. Come along. Let us finish this – er – enjoyable little stroll. It will be interesting to meet our four travellers over there face to face and establish our whereabouts, will it not, hmm?’

~~~

t’s all very confusing,’ Gillian said to John in an undertone.

‘You mean that they turned out to be the wise men despite there being an extra one?’

‘Well it is, isn’t it?’

‘I’ll say. What about the presents, for starters?’

‘Presents? Oh, I see what you mean; the gold, frankincense and myrrh. Why are they part of the mystery? They must be in their travel bags.’

John smiled mischievously. ‘But they carry a present each into the manger, don’t they? I just wondered what the fourth one was taking. A selection box, perhaps.’

They all sat together on a groundsheet of stiff, coarsely woven brown cloth which had been rolled up and strapped to one of the resigned-looking camels. Nearby were several rocky hills, one much larger than the others, of a burnt orange colour. The four men, all ancient relics of yesteryear swathed in robes, had provided their new acquaintances with a portion of unleavened bread apiece, heavy and more than a little stale, and a swallow or two of wine, heavily watered and thus a shadow of its former self.

Balthasar was a broadly-built, venerable-looking character with appraising eyes that seemed as old as time. He wore a decorated leather collar that extended over his shoulders and chest.

‘I am always pleased to break bread with fellow travellers,’ he announced.

Caspar, his hair and beard grey and wispy, regarded the oddly-garbed newcomers in a restrained manner, though with a slight smile. ‘It is less than a hardship to share with you on this occasion. This bread would turn the stomach of my camel.’

‘He’s quite right. It would,’ John whispered to Gillian, making her laugh.

‘Hush, children,’ reprimanded Dr Who.

Melchior, an anxious-looking old fellow, spoke up in a quivery voice with, ‘Surely a little privation matters nought when measured against the glorious event that approacheth.’

‘I dare say,’ Caspar riposted, ‘but it has still been a long, hard journey with precious little shelter along the way. We’ve rested only in snatches and none of us are exactly in the first flush of youth either.’ He looked at his piece of bread again, made an exclamation of disgust and tossed it over his shoulder. ‘What a treat for the vultures. They’ll not fly again after they’ve pecked away at that.’

Melchior was about to make an attempt to smooth things over when Balthasar chimed in gruffly. ‘We ate well in Jerusalem. There was no shortage of fine dishes at the banquet King Herod invited us to.’

‘The bread there wasn’t crusty enough, though’ Caspar persisted, less than seriously now.

 
         

artwork by ANDY LAMBERT
used with permission
 
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