LESS THAN A week later, Alexos's ship had been emptied of its golden grain and the promised bonus paid. He was pleased with life in general and joked with Gracus as the centurion walked restlessly about the deck.
“You must get a legion of your own soon, my friend, else you will surely wear my ship's boards thin with your pacing.”
Gracus snorted. “No legion command for me at any near time, Alexos. But I would hear the order for me to report for duty. Inaction tires me more than battle.”
The two men turned at sudden noises from the dockside crowd and saw Kaspar and four servants coming toward the ship. When he waved, the three cats leaped from where they had been lounging in the shadows and ran down the ship's plank. No one saw Asmodeus silently slip down a mooring rope and scurry into a heavy bundle one of Kaspar's servants had set down for a moment.
Gracus watched them as they hurried to meet Kaspar.
“I swear to you, Alexos, they heard and comprehended our entire conversation of a few nights ago.” Then a lump rose in Gracus's throat, for, contrary to his dream, Ira looked back at the centurion. The black cat held the man's gaze for a long minute, then raised his crooked left leg and tilted his paw. The Roman returned the salute, and Ira turned and trotted after Kaspar, the servants, and the other two cats.
HE CARAVAN SET out upon the trip to Jerusalem two days after the cats had left Alexos's ship. Kaspar kept Ira close beside him on his camel, in a low-sided basket as Gracus had advised, while Kezia had her own basket upon Melchior's camel and Abishag was with Balthazar.
It felt odd to the cats to be traveling separately, since they had been journeying as a threesome now for many months. But they met one another at mealtimes and then when the caravan stopped for the evening, and with that they had to be content. Each of the three cats, indeed, had so many of his or her own thoughts to mull over that they really had little time to grow lonely for their accustomed companionship.
The weather grew colder also, and each was glad to curl up in a basket out of the piercing wind, as the wise men followed the brightest star in the eastern sky.
Two weeks into the journey all the travelers sat about a welcome fire, blazing in the darkness that was the desert after sundown.
The men had their evening meal and then listened as one of their servants began a plaintive tune upon a small fife.
“Have you brought a gift for the Messiah, Kaspar?” Balthazar asked as the last notes faded.
Kaspar nodded. “From what Melchior has said, we have among us brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. What will you do with the three doves?”
Melchior raised his head and looked into the night sky before answering. “I know not. I had a beautiful cage fashioned for them, of gold wire and tiny jewels. Yet somehow they seem not appropriate for a babe, unless they represent the peace He is to bring our sad, war-torn earth.”
“I confess I myself am puzzled as to the significance of the three rings I dreamed of and then brought along, in answer to my heart's urging,” Balthazar commented.
“The rings do represent three elements,” Kaspar replied.
“Yes, but what need would a Messiah have for ordinary articles such as they? For they have no jewels nor value to them that I may perceive. The metal one is but a harder ring than the one of wood, yet still more malleable than the one of stone.” Balthazar's very voice sounded perplexed.
Kaspar nodded at the cats, who were dozing in the warmth of the fire. “Well, if it is apparent need or use you are seeking, what of them? We have responded to dreams as we felt we were bidden by the old prophecies and by the One God. And we are following that beautiful star as we were also bidden. Surely when we reach our journey's end we shall have all revealed to us!”
With that hope voiced aloud, the human and feline members of the camp soon settled to sleep. Kaspar had thoughtfully brought along the big basket Gracus had originally provided them, and the three cats slept warmly each night within the folds of the rough wool cloak.
Before dawn, however, Abishag woke and, resting her chin on the edge of the basket, watched the glorious star in the east.
It seems to be traveling just ahead of us now,
she thought, half asleep still.
It is as if we are beckoned onward by it, to find the King of Kings and to present Him with our gifts . . . To think I am actually on the last leg of such a profound journey. We have had such generous help from all the humans now in our lives. I know Ira suffered with his poor broken leg, and Kezia's ear was painful until it healed. Now it is crumpled and she isn't as pretty as she wasâbut we are all alive and well, considering. I want to hurry and find the Messiahâand then hurry even faster to return home and tell Ptolemy all we have seen and done and heard. I hope he is well, too. And that he watches the same star, at least what he can see of it from so far away. Does he wonder about us and how we are doing? Does heâdoes he miss me? I miss him very much.
A light breakfast and they were off once again, the strong camels traveling many more miles in a day than man or cat could have done on foot. That day seemed a longer one than most; the men shifted in their saddles and the cats were restless in their baskets as the hours wore on. Finally, at a tiny oasis, the call came to dismount and make camp for the night. Riders waited for the camels to lower themselves to the sandy soil; with much groaning and snorting, the great beasts settled themselves and their burdens on the ground.
Ira hopped out of his basket as soon as he judged his crooked leg could bear the shock of his landing. After he stretched, he flung himself onto the bank of a sandy wash that wound through the oasis. On his back, he wriggled until he was covered with silt, thus completing a most satisfying back scratch despite his harness. Rolling to his feet, he went looking for Kezia and Abishag.
Kezia began sneezing when Ira bounded up to her, shaking small puffs of silt from his fur as he jumped.
“Ira! You are as dirty as three human boys could be!” She sneezed again. “Please go shake off the dirtâsomewhere else.”
Ira laughed and twitched his ears rapidly. “I can make dust signals with my ears,” he bragged. “Who needs smoke?” The unseen paw that cuffed an ear belonged to Abishag, and Ira whirled, then pulled himself into a menacing crouch. “Watch out, foster sister! I'm in a fierce mood this evening.”
Abishag laughed in turn. “You look as if you have brown fur instead of black. No Roman soldier would ever get that dirty.”
“No Roman soldier would ever
this dirty,” Ira corrected her and shook himself thoroughly. Then he settled down next to one of the pack camels to bathe, while the girls went hunting. Suddenly his upper lip flehmened and he sworeâsoftly, so his sisters wouldn't overhear him.
“By Mars's shield; Asmodeus, how is it you travel so many miles to plague us and yet never lose your stink?”
“Ah, my young soldier cat. You bear your grudges as you would bear your armsâif you could do so.” Asmodeus smirked at Ira from behind the bundles of provisions. “And how fare you and your delightful foster sisters?”
“Good. I am delighted for you. Now that you are a warrior and a world traveler, you should be doing very well indeed. Are you dining as pleasantly as you did aboard Alexos's ship?”
“We don't have fresh fish any longer, silly. This is the desert,” Ira answered, resuming his bath.
“But there is plump, fresh dove for the taking.”
Ira glared at Asmodeus. “You're disgusting. Those doves are sacred; they are gifts to the Messiah.”
“Indeed? So they are not tender, succulent meat, kept for you, a seasoned warrior, in a cage with but a tiny clasp? Are they not fed daily with ripe grain, so they grow plumper yet?”
The black cat's mouth watered in spite of himself. “They are not to be eaten. They are gifts. And don't you bother them either.”
“Three gifts for three cats. Imagine how your sisters would praise you for presenting them each with a juicy, tender young bird. They wouldn't have to hunt for themselves, as they're in the process of doing at this very minute. Do they not pity you, since they share their kills with you? You must admit you cannot pounce as well as you could previously.”
Ira clenched his teeth as he began to get angry. Then his stomach rumbled, and the rat heard it.
“Last night's dinner, if memory serves me correctly, was but a few locusts; the servants did not think to feed you. Not much for a warrior's rations.”
“The legion marches on hard bread and water,” Ira said firmly. “I am entitled to that, too. But I do not draw provisions or pay from the quartermaster. I secure my own rations.” And without warning, he leaped at the rat, who barely scuttled to safety under another pile of packs.
“You deceitful ingrate!” Asmodeus snarled. “I en deavor to present you with an easily procured dinner, and in turn you try to dine upon me. You've ruined my tailâI won't forget this!”
“I wouldn't eat you if I were starving,” Ira said and spat out the tip of Asmodeus's bedraggled tail. “Remember when I caught you before, I told Ptolemy you smelled too bad to eat.”
Only curses answered Ira as he strolled away, joining his sisters for their evening hunt. They caught a few beetles but fared very well anyway, as the servants killed and roasted two fat sheep from the flock brought with them upon the journey. Flavored with rich spices and very tender, the meat filled everyone's stomachs nearly to bursting.
Abishag looked at the beautiful star for a long time after everyone else, including the humans, had settled for the night. She started to climb into the basket, which was turned on its side toward the fire, nudging Kezia and Ira over to make a little more room when she paused.
What was that peculiar sound?
She left the basket and listened. The entire camp appeared to be sound asleep; the fire had burned down to a handful of glowing coals. Even the sentries were seated instead of standing.
That's not right
Ira said there must always be someone keeping watch, especially at night.
The sound came again: a horrible, moaning noise that quickly escalated into a high-pitched quaver of notes that frightened Abishag. And the noise was closer; closer now than when she had first heard it.
She woke Ira and then Kezia. “Something is wrong. There is some strange creature out thereâ”
An answering call from the other side of the camp served to shake the sleep from Ira's eyes and he bounded out of the basket. “What is that terrible noise?”
The sheep began moving about anxiously and the lead camels raised their heads and snorted softly.
“We must wake the humans,” Abishag said practically. “And do so now!” She ran to where Balthazar was sleeping peacefully and began patting his face with a paw. Kezia began licking and nibbling Melchior's fingers.
Ira hurried to Kaspar and butted the wise man's shoulder with his small head. He repeated this until he roused him from a deep sleep. “What is wrong, little soldier?” he asked sleepilyâand then sat straight up as the eerie cry sounded across the sands and the oasis once again.