A bloodcurdling yell from behind him was all the warning that Judah got to dodge sideways and whirl around. Josiah landed in the dusty street next to him with a whump, then picked himself up from his hands and feet and gave his friend an impish grin.
“Hey. We’re going out to the hills to play bandits. Wanna come?”
Judah’s face fell. “Can’t. Gotta help Ma clean the rooms.”
Josiah scowled. “Man, can’t you ever get out of the chores?”
“Not with this stupid census on.” Judah kicked at a rock in the street. “Caesar oughta be the one having to put up all these people traveling back to their hometowns just to tell him who they are.”
“Well, if you get done early, come find us, all right?” Josiah scampered down the street without waiting for an answer. Three other boys joined him at the corner and with a whoop they disappeared from sight. Judah stared wistfully in their direction. There was a time he’d been proud of being an innkeeper’s son, a time when he’d been the one with all the free time bugging the other boys to come out and play. But not anymore.
He shoved his hands into his pockets and kicked at the rock again as he kept walking. Every inn that he passed was just as full as his parents’. He even heard several innkeepers turning travelers away. They’d be making their way to his parents’ inn before long, and his mother would be scrambling to find rooms for them. He’d probably be sleeping in the kitchen again, like the last several nights. The only room in the house that his parents hadn’t rented out was their own, and they were now sharing it with his younger brothers.
By the time he’d delivered his mother’s message to the butcher and gotten back to the inn, another string of donkeys stood outside the gate and a couple camels lounged in the yard. His father haggled with the donkey owner over the price of the room. Judah slipped around to the kitchen door and found his mother yelling at the cook over not having any fresh bread to give to the travelers. Apparently the camel owners were quite wealthy and paying for top-notch service.
“Judah!” she cried. “Where have you been, dawdling with your friends? Our guests are arriving and you haven’t got the rooms clean. Get after it!”
“Yes, Ma,” he said, slinking out of the kitchen again and wondering where his younger brothers were. He soon found them already at work, feeding animals or running errands for the travelers. By the time they finished their chores and were allowed to sit down in a corner of the kitchen for a bowl of soup, Judah was exhausted.
“There’s no room left here for tonight,” his mother announced, sweeping into the kitchen. “Silas and Caleb, you’ll be sleeping in my room. Judah, you can sleep in the kitchen. Just don’t leave your bedding in the way like you did this morning.”
He would have groaned if he wasn’t too busy eating his soup. The kitchen was the worst place to sleep, as the cook was the first person up in the morning and there was always someone stumbling in at midnight to ask for a cup of tea or a bit of bread.
“Judah, check the stable before you go to bed, please,” his mother finished, and turned to talk to the cook about the next day’s menu. Judah slurped the last of his soup out of his bowl and pushed himself to his feet. After dropping the bowl on the stack of dirty dishes and hoping that Caleb and Silas would be assigned to dish duty tonight, he headed for the stable behind the inn.
The low, dark building was quiet after the din of the inn. Judah’s feet rustled through the straw while he checked on the animals there, but all were contentedly eating their hay. He got one of the camels another bucket of water and pushed his mother’s cow back into its own stall. It liked to wander the stable and wasn’t any happier with the census crowd than Judah was.
He was making another trip to the well when he saw the couple standing at the door. The woman was bent over on the donkey, her shawl hiding her face, her arms wrapped around her distended stomach. Judah wondered that the donkey could carry all her weight. The man’s shoulders were slumped as he raised his fist to the gate.
“We’re full,” Judah said before the knock fell.
Both of them turned and look at him. In the gathering darkness, he could barely see their faces, but he didn’t need any light to feel the exhaustion in their look.
“Every inn is,” the man said with a sigh. “Can’t you put us anywhere? My wife is pregnant and about to give birth.”
Judah looked at the woman, his eyes widening. She couldn’t do that on a donkey!
“Yes,” the man said. “We’ve been to every inn in town. Please. We don’t need much space. Just a little room somewhere… the donkey can stay outside. But my wife…”
A shifting lantern in an upstairs window sent a gentle ray of light across the woman’s face. Her expression was gentle as she looked at Judah, pleading. Then she twisted her face in pain, yet made no sound. Judah’s mind raced as the woman struggled with the contraction. If a baby was coming, they needed a place now. But there wasn’t a space anywhere. Except for—
“The stable,” he blurted out, and then felt his face grow hot. “I’m sorry, ma’am, it’s not a fit place for a lady like you, but it’s quiet and—“
“It’ll work,” she murmured as the contraction passed and her face returned to normal.
“But Mary—“ the man protested.
“There’s dry straw,” Judah offered. “And it’s warm. I’ll move the animals. I can get you water and blankets and such. And no one will bother you there.”
“All right,” the man agreed. “Please show us.”
Judah led them around the inn and up the path to the stable. Another contraction had seized Mary when they got there, and they waited by her donkey for it to pass. When it did, her husband helped her from the donkey. Judah ducked into the stable, leading the way to the back. There they kept the hay, but the area was half-empty because they had been feeding so many animals.
Judah heaped up some hay in the corner and the man spread his cloak over it, then helped Mary lay down. Seeing they were comfortable, Judah dashed inside to get them some food and warm water. Then he took care of their donkey, tying the little animal in another corner and giving it a heaping pile of hay.
“Thank you,” Mary whispered, her face glowing in the light of the lantern that Judah had hung over their heads.
“Is there anything else you need?” he asked, looking from her to her husband. As Mary’s face crunched up with pain again, the man shook his head.
“No, thank you. You have done much. May God bless you, my son.”
Judah nodded and went into the inn. Sometime in the middle of the night, when the inn had finally grown quiet and everyone was asleep, he heard the piercing wail of a newborn baby. He rolled over, feeling that somehow the census wasn’t such a bad thing after all.