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One Silent Night


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"How long before they get here?!" Nalia growled as she looked down on Trademeet. They were waiting from their camp on a nearby hill, and the waiting was starting to wear on her nerves. "For a couple of Bhaalspawn wanting to kill each other, they seem pretty content to take their time!"


Viconia glanced at her, then back to Covenant as he was trying to cook something in the pot he was stirring. By the look on his face it was not going well, and he seemed unaware of the unpleasant smell emanating from it.


"You know where they are, child. If you are so eager for them to come, you can always take your complaint to them. I'm sure they will ensure you are not bored - for as long as you live at least." The cleric knew what was at the heart of her complaint, but also what to expect from two such beings and their armies when the battle was finally joined.


Nalia glared at her a moment, but understood it was the Drow's way of telling her to be quiet.


"Boo does not like this waiting, nor do I, but we have both seen what such evil Bhaalspawn can do. Perhaps I can find some herbs to sweeten what you cook, Covenant?" The smell was beginning to get to him as well.


The paladin tasted the concoction and grimaced. "Maybe some salt," he muttered as he began rummaging in his backpack, but his voice carried a note of doubt.


"Perhaps you should quit while you are ahead," Viconia commented. "Throw it out and let Nalia prepare the meal since she seems so eager to do something."


He looked searchingly at her a moment. "It's that bad?"


"That charnel pit of the Eyeless cult had a stench that was sweeter."


Minsc and Boo both nodded in agreement. Nalia, the most distant from the cooking, returned a pleading stare as she covered her mouth and nose with her hand.


He looked back at the pot and sighed. "Garrick and Jaheira made it look so easy." He lifted it off the fire and offered it to the ranger without raising his eyes, shoulders slumped in defeat. "Please see it has a proper burial."


The hamster squeaked something to Minsc. "Boo thinks he knows what you're trying to cook, and a little lemonbrush leaf will help make it smell better. Some peppergrass should season it nicely, don't you think, Boo? See him nod his head in agreement? Boo knows his herbs. Maybe we can save it from the evil that has befallen it."


Viconia almost smiled as the paladin's shoulders drooped even more and he placed the pot back on the fire. He was a good cook, but this pot of rabbit seemed to be at war with him, and he had lost. And he hated to lose.


"Defeated by a dead rodent," she taunted softly as he sat beside her. The log was just a nice size to lean back against. "It must certainly chafe your manhood."


"I was told," he replied as softly, "that the quickest way to learn humility is to be humiliated. I wouldn't mind so much, but being humbled is so . . . humiliating!"


"A pity you sent the best cooks on that errand of yours, looking for what, again? Some mysterious legendary or mythical something that can bind even gods to their word? You may have regained your soul from that mad mage, Irenicus, but I wonder if he somehow managed to take your sanity."


"I made you a promise," he responded softly, "that if Valas still lives I would find a way to release him from Lolth's hand and curse. With the way things have gone these last two years, who knows."


Everyone watched as Minsc took two dried leaves from his backpack, then crushed them in his palm before rubbing the fragments between his hands and letting the powder fall into the pot. The effect was immediately noticeable.


"I expect your plan will work better than your cooking," Nalia commented as she looked at Covenant. "Many of my people's lives are riding on it, as are many of Athkatla's best fighters and mages."


"You've seen the slums." The paladin's voice was sharper than usual, still stinging from his failure at the fire. "You've seen what only one of my siblings can do with just a small band of followers."


"Which is why it was decided to draw them to Trademeet. I know." She had grown since traveling with Covenant, and learned much as he had ruled and protected her estate and lands. She had learned the weight of responsibility after he left her to run things on her own. "I agree it's the best choice. We choose the battlefield then draw them to it. Let them fight and weaken themselves before we deal with them. Trademeet is well away from Athkatla, most of the citizens here are safely out of the way, we know the land and can use it to our advantage. Even the druids of the area have agreed to aid us. But everything hangs on them both coming here, arriving at the same time and from opposite directions!"


Covenant looked up into the darkening sky, and saw the first and brightest stars begin to appear. He felt himself grow calm, in body and mind and spirit, and he remembered. "They know I'm here, so they'll come. The druids are keeping watch on them as only they can, and are seeing to the rest. They guarantee they'll be here midmorning tomorrow."


"That's a lot to take on faith," she retorted angrily. "It might be fine for you, being a paladin, or Viconia being a cleric, but I don't see it that simple."


"Have you thought about the stars, Nalia?" He clasped his hands behind his head to take the pressure from his neck as he continued looking up. His voice was calm and slow. "They've looked down on this world since it was made. They've seen the passing of races, the rise and fall of kingdoms, the sundering of continents, mountains sink into the sea and islands rise from the midst of those very seas. Yet they remain in their places, seemingly unchanged, always there for us to see. They give us light in the dark night, they tell us the seasons, we sail our ships by them. Do you remember Galileus, Viconia?"


She looked over to him, seeing a distant look in his eyes. "He was some stargazer near that temple at Beregost. He said something about the stars showing interesting things were about to happen. What about him?"


"At first I thought he was just another astrologer, drawing on the stars to see the future. I had a chance to talk with him later and found I was wrong. He's more a sage than an astrologer. He told me there's a nearly forgotten story that the stars, their houses and constellations, were placed to tell a great story, of a perfect Creation, how it was broken, of the suffering and slavery that followed, and finally of the redemption that was to come. Strangely, someone told me something similar when I was a child in Candlekeep. It was only after Irenicus had begun experimenting on me that my God showed me they were connected, and He was the author."


"What does that have to do with us now?" Nalia snapped angrily.


Covenant smiled softly, yet Viconia could see a hint of both sadness and amazement in his face. Minsc stopped stirring the pot long enough to glance at the paladin, then at Boo before continuing the cooking. Boo climbed up on Minsc's head and began watching the Bhaalspawn.


Covenant took a slow, deep breath. "Can you hear it? Can you feel it? There's an unusual calmness in the air and land tonight. It must have been a night like this when the redemption of His creation began. My God showed me a vision, and I saw the land and the people he had prepared. It was a hard land, dry, almost a desert, and what land was workable was full of rocks. Yet the people made the land flourish. For more than a thousand years He had worked with them, raising up an entire nation from the offspring of one man, then worked with that nation to be a sign and witness of His power to an entire world. He dealt with them with a strong hand, both to protect and to punish, for they were a small nation surrounded by many powerful and great nations, but they were also a stubborn and rebellious people, as hard as the land itself to work with. Yet from the moment His Creation was broken, in His great love He made a promise to redeem and restore both it and all the people of the broken Creation, because they all bore the chains of its enslavement."


"Long ago in a land far, far away. It sounds like a fairy tale," Nalia taunted with a laugh. Her words held an edge of ridicule. "I suppose those people were just waiting for this promise? And they were all blessed by this god of yours and ready to receive it."


The paladin raised his head to look at the young woman, and shook his head. "I said they were a stubborn and rebellious people. Most thought of the promise like you - a fairy tale for children. You see, their God had been silent for nearly two hundred years. No prophet, no oracle spoke for Him. And to make things worse, they had been under the rule of one empire or another for even longer. They were currently under the foot of the most aggressive and ruthless of all the empires that had existed until that time. Lady Nalia, do you remember what we found near the main gate to your estate when we first arrived there? What TorGal had done to warn us away?"


Her face paled slightly as she nodded. "Even though they were dead before they were hung out, just remembering gives me nightmares."


"Crucifixion was the preferred method of execution for this empire. When they put down an uprising, and there were many in this land, the roads would be lined with those who challenged their might, alive, naked, often taking days to die. But since the empire allowed it, they still served their God, and worshiped Him, but more from duty than from the heart. They had His Law, their history, and all written down for them to read at any time. And they did read them, because their culture and the Law required it They knew what He had done for them. They knew they were His chosen people. But chosen does not mean blessed. I know that all too well." He leaned forward and grew quiet for a few moments. "I am His chosen, and look at the life I live, a wanderer with no place to call home, constantly having to defend myself from those who would take my life. My heritage and faith both require I face my siblings for the throne of our father. If I have one hope, one chance at a normal life, it's to live another year and see this bloody butcher's contest ended."


Viconia laughed lightly, a sardonic tone edging it lightly. "And just what is *normal* to us? I doubt we would know it even if it came up and introduced itself."


Covenant turned his gaze to the priestess and smiled. In her own way, she understood as no other here did. Neither of their lives had truly been their own, but always controlled and manipulated by another. For him it was Bhaal, for her it had started with Lolth, but now Shar ruled. His hand found hers and squeezed it softly. "Maybe when this is finally over we can find out. Together."


She returned his smile and his gesture. "Perhaps. If we survive."


Still holding Viconia's hand he turned back to lady of D'Arnise Hold. "As I said, they knew His hand was on them, but they chafed under it, even if they wouldn't say so. They knew the words of the Law and the Prophets. They knew His promised redemption was to come through one of them. He would be a prophet greater than the one who had received the Law from their God. He would be a king greater than their greatest king. They understood he would be a king and a redeemer for they and their nation. But want colored understanding. They wanted a king who would lead the nation against their conquerors more than a priest who would stand between their sin and their God. They focused on those prophecies that filled their desires, ignoring and often forgetting those that spoke of a redeemer who would suffer."


"After what that bastard Roenall and his son did to my family and land, I understand why.†The memory was still bitter to her, but as she looked at Covenant, she softened. “But after watching you restore what they destroyed, and what it cost, the sacrifices and risks you took . . . Still, I can understand them."


"Many things he may have been," the paladin returned with a quiet stare, "and his son no better, but I can assure you illegitimate wasn't one of them. At least choose an epithet that fits, if you must curse him." Then he nodded as he continued his story. "We look back upon events with the vision of an elf, but forward with blind eyes. When the prophesied time came, few were ready to receive it. The emperor had decreed a census, so he could raise more taxes to expand and maintain his empire. Without knowing it, his command ensured this redeemer-king would be born at the proper place and time. And it was not where anyone would have thought for such a personage to enter their world."


"I would think it would be in a palace or temple somewhere," Minsc declared as Covenant paused. The ranger added a few small peppergrass blades to the slowly simmering brew. "That is where one with such a great destiny should be born, yes?"


"To our way of thinking, yes." The paladin's reply prepared them for the next part of the story. "But my God does things differently than we expect. Though both had royal linage, the mother was barely mature enough to have a child, and her family was not wealthy. Her husband, many years older than she, was little better off, a carpenter only a few years beyond his apprenticeship."


"The mother and her husband," the Drow noted, "not the mother and father. You would not make such a mistake, so the child must not be his."


He nodded. "She was found pregnant before they were married, during their betrothal. In that culture he had the right to divorce her for what was seen as an infidelity on her part, and let the law be fulfilled, the law that said to take her outside the city and stone her to death."


"What?!" Nalia exclaimed. "Killing her just for having a child out of wedlock?! That's monstrous! It happens all the time!"


"An interesting twist for a god that's supposed to love his people," the cleric added. "Marriage is nothing to a Drow. Such pregnancies are normal. Yet they kill both mother and child because their law said to? That is much even for me to accept, unless your god is as twisted as Cyric."


Minsc gave Covenant a puzzled look. "I do not like such a law, either. Why would their god make such a law?"


"A little light between the ears you may be, my friend," the paladin chuckled as he tapped his own head, "but you see beyond the immediate! From the beginning He was showing them a moral and ethical purity was critical in serving Him. But more importantly, it had a direct impact on the prophecies of the Redeemer. A virgin would conceive and bring forth a son."


Viconia began laughing hysterically. "And you expect us to believe this girl was pregnant and still a virgin? You spin a tale that even Garrick would envy! It takes a male to start the process, and *that* eliminates virginity! Every female knows that! Don't you agree, mage-girl? Perhaps you are more naive than I thought, my little paladin! It shall make my plucking you so much more enjoyable!"


"I don't like the way you say it, Viconia," she responded, "but you're right. That's why the first time is so important to a girl."


Viconia leaned forward and put her arm across his shoulders. "Perhaps I can show you *why* right now," she whispered to him, but loud enough to all to hear. She was pleased to see him blush.


"Inexperience is not the same as ignorance. I know the facts well enough, my lady," he replied, shooting a rebuking glance at her, his voice slightly strained, "and you know why I *won't* let it happen."


She withdrew her hand, smiling at his discomfort. He continued. "But that was what the prophet declared. A virgin would conceive and bring forth a son. Purity in life, purity in mind, purity in spirit. Cleanliness was also part of their culture, from washing of hands before eating, to cleansing objects of mold, to what was and was not to be eaten, to limits placed on sexual conduct. It had the benefit of reducing disease and plague among them, and gave them long life, so it should not quickly be discounted. And how many young maidens kept themselves pure, or young men restrained until their wedding night, on the hope that she would be the one?"


"But how could this be?" the bewildered ranger asked. "Even I know it takes a man."


The paladin looked at Viconia, who had settled back against the log. "The God I serve is also the Giver of Life. Imagine the young maiden's confusion when His messenger appeared before her, telling her she was the one chosen to bear the promised Redeemer. She could easily have reacted as you did, in disbelief. She could have let fear lead and argue with the messenger, and there were many good reasons to fear. What would her betrothed do when he found out? What about her family? Would she be stoned to death for adultery? How would she live if she were cast out and not killed? But she knew her God had spoken, so she swallowed her fear and let her faith lead, just as we often must, trusting He would provide for her and the child.


"And He did. When it became clear she was with child, I'm sure there was a very serious discussion in her house. Maybe her mother called in a midwife to validate her daughter’s claim she was still pure, maybe she did the examination herself, maybe she thought her daughter was lying but loved her too much to abandon her. But in the end her family did not disown her. As for her betrothed, he had arranged to send her away privately, where he would support her and her child but have nothing more to do with her, so that her shame would not be known. At least that was his plan until God sent a messenger to him to explain the situation. He loved her and his God, so he married her quickly, willing to suffer the stigma that would follow."


"He was a good man," Minsc said with respect. He sipped the stew, frowned slightly, then drew another lemonbrush leaf from his pack. "Even mighty Minsc wonders if he would have that kind of courage."


Nalia nodded in agreement. Viconia thought a moment, then looked at Covenant. "This female appears to have a strong will, and no small amount of courage herself. Among my people it is demanded of males to do such things. But to willingly share and endure the suffering of this female, I must admit I find the thought . . . unusual, even pleasant."


The paladin looked at her and smiled. "Contrary to what your Mistress would want, I think there may be hope for you yet."


She returned a scowl, knowing he was playing with her and one of the main tenants of Shar. "Or are you just deluding yourself? No matter. Continue with your story."


He nodded. "There was steel in this small girl. I mentioned about a census and tax being decreed. You have to question the timing. This young maiden, nearing the time to deliver, has to go with her husband to a small town probably no larger than Nashkel, and at least a three days' journey, riding on the back of a donkey. The roads are crowded with people traveling for the same reason they are, so when they get to the town the inn is full. To make matters worse, she goes into labor." Covenant grew silent as he leaned back, gazing again at the sky. Many more stars were visible now as night was almost upon them.


After a few moments of silence, Nalia finally burst out, "Well, what happened? Did someone take them it? I can't believe she gave birth in the middle of the street!"


"Maybe they found shelter in the local temple?" Minsc asked, staring at the paladin in anticipation, unaware he had stopped stirring the stew.


Viconia remained silent, a slight smile on her lips. She was not going to take the bait as the others. She could wait for him to continue.


"That smells good," Covenant commented and looked at the ranger. "It would be a shame to have dinner burn after all you did to save it."


Boo made a chittering sound as Minsc quickly began stirring again. "Laugh now, Boo, but you want some of this too. And you want to know about the girl as much as I do!"


Covenant looked at the mage. "Nalia, if your jaw were any lower you'd trip over it." He grinned when she closed her mouth with an audible click of teeth.


He finally continued after a few more moments. "The people were doing their best, but no one had room for them. What the inn could not handle, the local townsfolk had taken in. And the local temple would not shelter them because of certain . . . interpretations of their Law regarding women, as well as a ceremonial uncleanness after giving birth. There was a caravan camp outside the town, but there was no time. There was only one place left, a place no one went to unless required, a cave in the hillside where they kept their flocks of sheep."


This time Viconia responded, and she was not pleased. "Were females seen as slaves in this place?! Was their religion so biased they could trample us so easily?! How dare they ignore such a need, and to one who was protected by their own god! And those people, ignoring her need, and the chosen of their own god! To let her have a child in such a foul place as a sheepfold!"


The paladin took her hand gently in his, and looked into her eyes. "Your anger has some merit, but not because of their Law. It was their interpretation. They saw it as a means to righteousness rather than a measure of how unrighteous we all are compared to my God. And give the people credit. They were doing the best they could in a bad situation. They had no idea who this little maiden or her child were. But even all this was in God's plan. Even that cave."


He looked again into the sky, eyes focused on something beyond, something within. "It was a night much like this," he began quietly. "It was warm, the shepherds were out in the fields watching their flocks, and had been for the last few days. The cave had been cleaned out, there was fresh straw for when they returned in another two or three days. It was quiet and private. There was a shelf of stone where the shepherds would sit when they had to watch the sheep in this place, a place for a small fire, a place where they could eat and rest. It was here this young maiden would give birth, watched over and helped only by her husband. As she rested from her labors, he cleaned the baby, then according to their custom he took the afterbirth outside the cave and burned it while she wrapped the child tightly in a cloth and lay him in a feeding trough."


"That is no place for a king to be born!" Minsc snapped. "Where are the priests to see and declare their god's work, or the mighty warriors to protect him, or the musicians and singers to proclaim his birth?!"


Covenant turned a piercing gaze to the ranger. "It was His plan to enter the world quietly. I said there were two types of prophecies regarding their redeemer-king. They knew of a king who would redeem them from their oppressors and free their land, a great warrior and leader. But they were not yet ready for their King. A greater work had to be done first, one only He could do. Too few paid attention to the prophecies of a suffering servant who would redeem their hearts and minds and spirits, fulfilling the very Law they labored under and had become enslaved to. They did not understand that the King was worthless without the Redeemer." He turned his gaze back to the sky and the vision still so clear in his mind. "But the baby was not unguarded, and such a chorus to sing His praise! Messengers of God, beings with brightness and power greater than that of a Solar, appeared to the very shepherds who's cave the child lay in and declared the great news of their Redeemer's birth! In terrible awe and great joy they left the flocks to see for themselves, and that night they would be the guards of this baby! And they would tell everyone who would listen what they had seen!"


"What?!" Minsc nearly knocked over the pot in his dismay. "Such an important baby guarded by such weak people? They would be as a wind before just one true warrior! Where are the likes Minsc and Covenant, great and mighty warriors who know how to fight and fight well?!"


His voice grew quiet with awe as he continued. "He was not sent to the strong or rich or powerful or wise. He was sent to the common people, to the meek and humble and helpless, the oppressed and those without hope. This is the prophecy I saw fulfilled. A virgin shall conceive and bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name God With Us. She had to be a virgin as a sign of her purity, a sign that no man had touched her, because through her the very God who had created everything, perfect, eternal, all knowing, all powerful, unchanging, was going to step out of eternity and into time in the body of this newborn baby, and He would know *all* that it is to be mortal."


"An interesting story," the Drow commented, "but the gods were all once lesser beings. Why would he return to such limited existence? That is where your story fails."


"But like so many things He does," he replied calmly, "it's backwards to our thinking. He has always been God, and until that young maiden conceived, had never walked in flesh as we. The Infinite God took on a finite form in that child."


Covenant rose to his feet and walked to the edge of the hill to look down on the lights glittering in Trademeet. "He would experience everything we do, and so much more sharply as only He, being infinite, could. Everything. Developing in the womb, birth, the helplessness of the newborn, the clumsiness and growing pains as his body matured to adulthood. He would know the physical limits of the flesh. Poor, He would know lack and need. Illegitimate, He would know derision and scorn. A carpenter, He would know hard work. He would know being hunted by a fearful ruler afraid of any challenge to his puppet throne. He would know the pain of loss when His step father died, homelessness as a traveling teacher. He would be hated as a heretic, betrayed by one of those closest to Him, abandoned by all who knew him, unjustly condemned as a rebel and executed, hanging naked on a cross. And in all this He would never once break the Law He had decreed, in word, in deed, or in thought. He would fulfill the Law so that those who trust in His righteousness will be free from it. And only then would His Kingdom begin."


He paused a moment in thought, making a connection. "For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; the government will be upon His shoulder, and His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgement and justice from that time forward, even forever."


He turned back to the others, their faces now illuminated only by the campfire. "A fantastic story, I know. I don't expect you to believe it. I barely believe it all myself. And there are so many things I don't understand about my God. But I *know* it's true. On this night I feel Him near, I remember what I was shown on that long ago night, and somehow know peace, because He knows me, He knows my pain and suffering and fear and imperfections, and still loves me. Until defeating Sarevok, I knew Him as my Savior, and my Lord until Irenicus captured me. It was only in that dungeon I began to know Him as my Redeemer."


He began laughing softly, joyfully. "Tomorrow will bring war and blood and death. But tonight we have peace. Let's enjoy it, my friends, and celebrate the hope embodied in that one Child so long ago."

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Well this was unexpected. I do not think Christianity mixes well with the Realms, and after reading this I stand by that. To paraphrase Chesterton -in a pagan world it was a piety to forget God.


Still I liked your characterizations of the BG NPCs, whatever hints of a back plot you have going, and above all your poetic treatment of familiar Christian concepts.


Merry Christmas and Epiphany, and thanks for sharing!

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