Camon’s grief quickly transformed into joy. An entourage from the encampment started to form around Camon, Achara, and Jorn. They were celebrating and dancing around the three with smiles and applause. The jubilation went on for several minutes until everyone fell silent, and they parted as an elderly, portly woman came out of the encampment with a red and gray feathered cloak. She was flanked by the older man who had greeted them earlier and another young woman. They all walked up to the three and stopped.
The woman spoke in the Gypsy language, then the elderly man translated, “Tuvana, our Mother, greets you and welcomes you to our camp. She expresses her deepest appreciation for what you have done for our daughters. She declares that tomorrow we will have a feast in your honor.” He then said something to the revelers around them who let out a shout.
The man came closer to the three and said, “I am Veduvac. Should you need anything while you are here, please only ask.”
“I am Camon, and this is Achara and Jorn,” Camon greeted, pointing to his companions. “We thank you for your hospitality.”
“I understand that the young girl is also a seer,” Veduvac said.
“I am,” Achara said.
“Thanks to your gifts, you were able to help bring our daughters here swiftly and safely,” He said. “We commend you.”
“Thank you,” Achara said.
“Please, follow me,” Veduvac invited.
Veduvac led them into the encampment. Some of the residents attended to the girls, and all the horses ridden in from the mesa. Veduvac led them to a table near one of the wagons, a young girl brought some tea for them to drink, and they drank it without hesitation.
Jorn downed his cup and asked for more. “This stuff is great!” he commented.
“Veduvac, what will become of the other girls who were with us?” Achara asked.
“We will help locate their families and arrange for safe return,” he said. “Our existence here on the plain may seem isolated, but we do share and communicate with our brothers in other camps.”
“We have met many of them,” Achara said. “We journeyed west across the central plain not too long ago.”
“Indeed,” Veduvac said. “We will see many of them at the conclave in a few months.”
They drank the tea and were feeling relaxed from its effects and now wanting to sleep. “Is there any way we could catch a nap?” Camon asked. “We haven’t slept much in the last two days, and we’re exhausted.”
“Indeed,” Veduvac said. “Let me show you to my place where you can lay your head.” He stood and led them to a wagon painted in dark maroon with gold accents and trim. He removed his shoes inside the wagon, and Achara, Camon, and Jorn all followed suit. The interior was trimmed in silk curtains and fine furnishings. At the back of the wagon was one large bed with two bunks over the top. Veduvac ushered them in and pointed to the beds at the back of the wagon, “Please, make yourselves at home here. Feel free to sleep as long as you need to.”
“Thank you,” Camon said. The three travelers then went to the back. Achara and Jorn chose the bunks and Camon the large bed on the bottom, and they were all soon asleep.
They woke a few hours later when Veduvac came back in and told them that dinner had been prepared. They all got up and got their shoes on and went out into the yard. A table had been prepared for them with a spread of vegetables and meat. They were seated at the table and were served by the residents as if they were at a fine dining establishment. They all ate to their hearts’ content. After dinner, they were entertained by dancing, singing, and storytelling, even though they could not understand what they were hearing. This went on for several hours before they returned to Veduvac’s wagon and slept for the night.
The next day, they awoke to much of the same fanfare as the day before. In the morning, they had already slaughtered a calf and were roasting it on the barbecue spit over the large fire pit at the center of the camp. The smell of the cooking meat filled the air of the windless day, and the smoke rose straight up hundreds of feet in the air before drifting off. Camon noticed another pillar of smoke rising from somewhere outside the camp.
After they ate, they spent the day talking and merrymaking with the residence. Camon enjoyed watching the pitmasters roast the calf with expertise. Achara spent time with Tuvana and Veduvac discussing what she had learned from Laoren. After a while, Camon looked around and noticed Jorn was missing. He went looking for him, and Achara told Camon that Jorn had gone out of the encampment about fifteen minutes earlier. Camon went out of the encampment and saw him immediately on the hill to the south of the encampment where the other pillar of smoke was rising. Camon walked up the hill and looked down and saw a large pile of smoldering corpses off in the distance.
Camon then looked at Jorn, whose face was expressionless. Jorn just stood with his feet shoulder-width apart, arms crossed, staring at the fire below without blinking for minutes. Camon said nothing, instead just stood and watched the smoke rise along with Jorn.
Jorn finally spoke, “Why me?”
Camon didn’t answer.
“Tell me, Paladin, why am I the one here being celebrated as a hero while those six souls burn for a crime not unlike my own?”
“Is this why you came up here?” Camon asked, looking at Jorn.
“I am just trying to understand it, that’s all.”
“I get it,” Camon empathized. “I really do.”
“Then how do you come to grips with letting me live and watching them burn?” Jorn asked.
“There’s a great tension between mercy and justice. I tend to err on the side of mercy to my own detriment at times.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Jorn mumbled.
“No,” Camon answered. “I’m simply trying to answer your question.” He crossed his arms and relaxed his stance.
“So it’s mercy, then, that’s it.”
“Then why did you choose to give me mercy and not them?” Jorn asked.
“That’s a good question,” Camon said. “I think it stems from who the victim of the offense was.”
“Up there on the mesa, you were content to leave them and just free the prisoners. Was that not mercy?”
“I was trying to avoid bloodshed. Our goal was never to kill anyone, rather free the girls, and be gone without a confrontation. But blood had been spilled, and I was confronted with the decision then to bring them to justice or let them free. At that point, I think the only right thing to do was to bring them to justice.”
“That’s still weak,” Jorn said. “It just doesn’t seem fair.”
“I think there’s the desire for justice to be fair in the sense that everyone pays the same price,” Camon said. “But I think what justice attempts to get at though is equity. It demands a price appropriate for the offense. But a fair price, so it seems, might vary case to case. And even so, sometimes, the offense is so great that no price could ever repay the offense.”
“But that still doesn’t explain mercy. If their offense was great, why not kill them up there on the mesa instead of going through all the trouble to bring them back here. They did exactly what I said they would do: kill them,” Jorn said, thrusting his hand forward.
“Because justice was not mine to take,” Camon responded. “The offense was against the whole of the Gypsy nation, so I let them have it.”
“But justice was in your hands with me. Why didn’t you take it?” Jorn enquired.
“In a way, it wasn’t. But you’re right. I could have taken justice and refused mercy. Achara too. She had her chance. And believe me, if mercy wasn’t in the cards for her, you wouldn’t be standing here,” Camon remarked.
“Mercy instead of justice, then?” Jorn asked.
“Justice made a demand for a price, but I think it’s up to the offended to choose whether to accept payment or to grant absolution. This is why I don’t think mercy is at odds with justice.”
“So, you think that I deserved mercy?”
“No one ever deserves mercy. If they deserved it, I don’t think we could call it mercy.” Camon said. “And if the Gypsies would have opted for mercy instead of justice for them, that would have been in their power to do so. But crimes against an entire community rarely see mercy. It’s easier for an individual to pursue mercy than for a nation.”
“Mercy. Justice. I think I get it, but I still don’t understand you. At the drop of a hat, you are willing to put your life on the line for another. At the same time, you have no desire to kill anyone, even in battle. I saw you up there on the mesa. You could have killed any number of those men, but instead, you chose to incapacitate them, even if it meant that they might regroup and attack again. But even so, you simply wanted to free the slaves and escape into the night, leaving them unharmed. Any sensible fool would have slit their throats in their sleep.”
“I guess I’m not a sensible fool.”
Jorn threw his hands in the air, “Shades, then, what are you?”
“You said it yourself. I’m a Paladin,” Camon answered.
“That’s not what I meant,” Jorn said. “Why shed even a tear for those bastards you didn’t even know?”
“I really don’t think it’s that complicated,” Camon said. “The reason I don’t kill is the same reason I am willing to put myself on the line for another.”
“Which is…?” Jorn implored.
“It’s life, Jorn. It’s life.” Camon replied. “Anyone’s life, no matter how evil that person may be or insignificant a life may appear, means it’s worth something. And even so, I like to think that no one is beyond redemption. For this reason, I don’t delight in the demise of the wicked. It grieves me to see one die before his time, even for crimes.”
“But how can someone who has committed such gratuitous evil ever be redeemed?” Jorn implored again.
“You tell me,” Camon replied.
Jorn put his hands in his pockets and stared at the ground, “I don’t know. I’m sitting here staring out across a field at six people who, in another life, could have been me. All things being equal, they were one degree difference in what they did and what I did. And yet I’m not a smoldering corpse right now. How can I be redeemed? I don’t know. I wish I could tell you.”
“You can’t change the past. Nor can you wrap your head around mercy sometimes. That’s why it confounds so many people. So often, people get wrapped up in what they did wrong and how they don’t deserve to go on that they never do. But what you can do is accept it and remember that you’ve been given something that people rarely get.”
“What is that?” Jorn asked.
“A second chance,” Camon said. “An opportunity to change and be a better person. It’s not because you deserve it. If you got what you deserved, you’d be proverbially speaking, down there with them, burning.”
“But how can I accept that?” Jorn asked, looking at Camon.
“Jorn, if you want to go throw yourself on a sword because you think that justice needs to be done on you, I’m not going to stop you. Achara won’t either,” Camon scorned. “You’re wallowing in self-indulgence. Accepting mercy can be hard if one is riddled with guilt or too proud to do so. I’m not sure which one is your problem, but I would encourage you to let it go.”
“It’s not that easy,” Jorn insisted.
“I know it’s not,” Camon said. “I’m not saying you have to do it right here and right now, but you have to come to grips with it at some point; otherwise, you will find it hard to move on.”
“It’s easy to lecture me from your position. What have you ever done that would make you understand me?”
“I don’t have to be you to understand you or sympathize with you,” Camon answered. “But if you want to know, I can tell you.”
“So, you do have a past,” Jorn said, crossing his arms again. He went back to staring at the smoldering fire.
“We all have a past,” Camon said. “But what I am about to tell you I have never told anyone. Not even Achara.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t tell me either then,” Jorn said.
“I think you need to hear it,” Camon objected.
“Fine. Suit yourself,” Jorn said.
“I’ve never been very forthright about why I left home as a kid. I usually gloss over these details, saying I ran away, which is true. But my reason for running is because I did something that I still regret to this day,” Camon said.
“You killed someone, didn’t you?” Jorn said. “I’ve heard it before.”
“Yes, I did. But not just anyone,” Camon said. “I was a middle boy in a family of seven. I had two older brothers and two older sisters and a younger brother and sister. I was neither strong nor coordinated, which made my older brothers tease me a lot. I was never the sort that was very good at manual labor, which our father highly prized. One day we were in the woods near our village, and as usual, they started in on their taunts and jabs. And as usual, they got the best of me, and I would fight back, which gave them an excuse to pummel me even more. To them, it was a sport. But this day, I managed to get the upper hand on one of them, and I shoved him back. He tripped and hit his head on a rock, killing him. Rather than face the consequences of my action, I ran away from home and never returned.”
“Sad story,” Jorn shrugged. “But what does that have to do with me? What you did was clearly an accident.”
“Everything!” Camon implored. “I left home and never went back because I was riddled with guilt. I never really got over it, but I did move on.”
“That at least explains why you don’t like to see people die.”
“But I had to do something even harder than accept mercy.”
“And what’s that?” Jorn asked, almost mocking him.
“Give mercy to myself.”
Jorn’s face contorted, “Give mercy to yourself? That makes no sense.”
“Sure it does,” Camon insisted. “Whether you admit it or not, oftentimes, we judge ourselves, and we begin to believe that we are beyond redemption. We hold ourselves hostage to guilt and shame for the rest of our days. The past never goes away, but at the same time, you don’t have to let it hold you back. But mercy allows us to move on.”
“You sound like a priest,” Jorn commented. “All platitudes and wishful thinking. All nonsense if you ask me.”
“In another life, I might have been one like you or might have been a slaver,” Camon said. “But you can keep wallowing. You asked me why, so I told you.”
“Suppose I do grant myself mercy? Then what? Is that supposed to make it all better?”
“Hardly,” Camon answered.
“Then why bother?”
“Because mercy is what allows us to move on,” Camon answered. “You then have to resolve to live differently. You strive to do what is right and good in this world. It helps if you have a cause to fight for that isn’t money.”
“Money is all there is,” Jorn cried. “Your fool’s crusade leaves you broke and miserable.”
“But like you said,” Camon responded. “It’s not about me…”
“Okay, you’ve made your point,” Jorn stated. “We could go around and round all day.”
“Very well. I’ll let it rest then.” Camon stood on the hill for a few moments longer in silence next to Jorn as the smoke from the fire spiraled up. A gentle breeze began to blow, and the smoke went from a vertical plume to drifting east across the plain. Jorn watched the clouds continue to drift, and Camon turned and left him standing there as he was before.