– The Quest –
Across the burning glare of the midday sun, a startled raven, its resounding croak shattering the stillness of the desert, soared westwards into the clear sky, and then, gracefully gliding, curved northwards towards the jagged rim of mountains along the hazy horizon. The three horsemen, their mounts panting hoarsely in the stifling heat and shifting restlessly on the scorching sands, followed the raven’s easy progress with sharp eyes. Presently, they moved forward slowly in the same direction, the flanks of the horses glistening in the sun.
An oasis was in sight some miles ahead. There, they would rest up until nightfall, when, guided by the North Star, they would continue on their journey, just as they had done for many days now. The desert seemed never-ending, the mountains so far away. And beyond the mountains lay their destination.
The three horsemen were no ordinary travellers, their mounts no ordinary mounts, their journey no ordinary one. For they were three proud emirs, clothed in robes of finest silk, astride snow-white, pure-bred chargers, on a mission so important that it would be recorded in the annals of Time, to be remembered by men of all nationalities for ever more.
From the bleak, barren lands of the South, the three emirs had travelled that day. One was brown-skinned, an Arabian, used to the ways of the desert; one was yellow-skinned and slant-eyed, a powerful mandarin from the far lands of the Orient; and the third was of a kingly stature, a great warrior-chieftain, with skin as black as the wing of the raven they had just watched.
As the travellers gradually neared to the oasis, wisps of smoke drifting up to the sky above the cluster of palm trees indicated the presence of others in the place. Perhaps, they thought, some nomadic tribe, one of the many that roamed the vast desert, had taken refuge there from the relentless beating of the sun. And, sure enough, as the oasis came into view, the emirs could see that several tents had been pitched around the waterhole and that groups of men were seated around campfires built beneath the welcome shade provided by the palms. But where was the tribe’s herd? Where were the womenfolk? The children? Wait! Stay your horse! Turn quickly, for we have stumbled into a brigands’ camp! Too late! Too late! We are surrounded! Our quest is in danger!
In vain, the three emirs wheeled round their snorting mounts in an effort to break through the ranks of the forty or so men, who, with sabres drawn and menace in their eyes, had by now encircled them. The brigands gave no ground. Soon, some of them were reaching out to grab at the halters of the horses. There was no escape.
‘Make way there!’ came a stentorian voice from behind the brigands. ‘Make way, I said!’
Seconds later, the tight circle of men broke to reveal their leader: a small, stout fellow with a fleshy, benign countenance.
‘Ho there!’ he bellowed heartily to his men. ‘This is no way to treat our guests!’
Then, gazing up to the emirs, he spoke cordially.
‘Welcome, travellers, to my camp. Will you not honour me by dismounting and taking refreshment with me?
‘My tent is over here,’ he added with a flourishing bow.
‘Order your men to unhand our mounts, fellow, and we will be on our way,’ the black emir replied haughtily to the brigand’s invitation. ‘We wish no truck with you, o thief of the desert.’
The other grinned widely, showing two rows of stained, uneven teeth.
‘Come now,’ he laughed. ‘I insist.’
The yellow-skinned emir then spoke to his companions.
‘In truth,’ he whispered, ‘we appear to have no choice in the matter. Let us do as the fellow says.’
Reluctantly, the others agreed, climbed down from their horses and followed after the brigands’ leader.
Later, as they sat cross-legged sipping refreshment in his tent, the leader spoke to the emirs.
‘What do you in the desert, gentlemen?’ he enquired.
‘We are travellers – on a holy mission,’ replied the brown-skinned emir, a fellow-Arabian.
‘A holy mission, eh? Tell me more,’ the brigand urged.
The black emir turned to look at his companions for some moments, and then, after receiving nods of approval from them, he spoke slowly and reverently:
‘We will tell you this and nothing more, for we have journeyed long this day and we are in need of rest.
‘Across the far mountains, in the distant land of Judea,’ he began, pointing northwards, ‘a great and wonderful event is to take place soon. A child will be born, a Messiah, who will be the Son of God. This birth was prophesied to each of us in turn, and now we go in search of the Messiah, so that we may pay homage to Him. Great gifts we have brought for Him. Such is our quest.’
The brigand looked incredulously at his guests.
‘Ah!’ he exclaimed. ‘That accounts for the three caskets which you bear. Gifts for the new Messiah?’
‘That is correct,’ spoke the slant-eyed emir. ‘Three caskets, each one filled with a most valuable commodity – one with gold, one with silver and one with precious jewels. Fitting gifts for the Son of God.’
The leader of the brigands beamed benignly.
‘Well, noble emirs,’ he said at length, ‘I can see that you are all great men with your fine robes and handsome horses. I can see that your quest is an important one, and that you have been chosen especially for it.
‘Have no fears, gentlemen. I will not obstruct your journey. Please rest here in my tent, and I will make sure that you are wakened when the sun burns down. I will speak to you then.’
With that, he departed from the tent, leaving the emirs to their repose.
When nightfall came and myriad stars glittered in the near-black firmament, the leader of the brigands, true to his word, directed one of the men to rouse the emirs.
Presently, the emirs, rested and refreshed, stepped out into the night, where the brigands had gathered to bid them farewell. But where were their horses? Where were the caskets? What treachery was afoot?
‘I trust that you have slept well, o holy men?’ asked the brigands’ leader, his smiling countenance highlighted by the flames of a campfire.
‘Where are our horses and caskets, fellow?’ rasped the black emir.
At a signal from the leader, three of his men led forward three old camels, while another three brought forth the caskets and laid these at the feet of the emirs.
‘Gentlemen,’ spoke the leader importantly and with great flourish, ‘while you have been resting, I have been thinking deeply, and I have arrived at two conclusions.
‘First, I decided that your horses were far too fine to be wasted on such a long and hazardous journey as yours. Hence, I have traded them for three of my own camels. They are, I think, more suited to your needs.
‘Second, if this child you seek truly is the Son of God, then he will have no need for the great riches contained in your caskets. Surely, the Son of God could have all the wealth in the world only for the asking. Is that not so, o noble emirs?
‘I have, therefore, exchanged your riches for other, more suitable gifts: frankincense to be burned in the little Messiah’s honour; fine Arabian myrrh with which to anoint Him; and fine golden sand from the desert, which He can turn into gold as the whim may take Him.’
At the end of his speech, the leader slapped his heavy paunch with both hands, and, holding his belly thus, began to roar with laughter. Soon, all of his men joined him in the joke.
Contemptuously, the three emirs lifted up their caskets, mounted the old camels and rode off slowly into the dark night. They had been tricked mercilessly by that devious thief. The fellow had mocked their quest. Still, though, there was a good deal of sense in his words. In truth, the Son of God had no need of great riches. And the camels, although old and half-blind, were sure-footed and wise; they would reach Judea.
And so, with heads held high, the three proud emirs looked to the North Star and continued on their journey.
Back in the oasis, the brigands were still choking with glee.
‘Truly,’ roared their leader amidst the merriment, ‘this Messiah must indeed be a powerful man! Look how rich he has made me already!’
– o –