The storyteller, as usual, seemed to start in the middle of the tale …
When Perd fell on his face in front of the governor, he had little hope. It was his second time to appear in this position, and what hope did he have of getting clemency? He had promised to reform, to learn a skill, and to get a job, but he had done none of those things. It had seemed much easier to steal. What’s more, he thought he had learned a lesson the last time. No, not the lesson he was supposed to learn. He thought he knew how not to get caught.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between persons, places, things, or events and those in the real world is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012
Henry E. Neufeld
Now he found himself sentenced to death for a large robbery in which he had seriously injured a man with his knife. And here he was again, on his face, in front of the governor.
The governor was known as a gracious man. In fact, he was not required to see every person who was sentenced to death before allowing the sentence to be carried out. He could just sign the death warrants, or even allow a secretary to do it for him. But he disliked seeing people beheaded, and he sought every way to prevent it, especially for people who had been sentenced for something other than murder. The law might allow the sentence for someone who had merely threatened the life of another, or done injury that might have led to death, but the governor didn’t like it.
The governor remembered Perd.
“Your honor commuted a previous sentence of death against this man,” droned the pardons secretary. He continued with the particulars.
When the pardons secretary had finished, the prosecutor spoke. “The defendant Perd has despised your honor’s grace given to him before. He has proven himself unworthy of your mercy. He is a threat to the province which you govern by the king’s leave.” The prosecutor mentioned the king, because he hoped that the governor would be afraid. The prosecutor was known to have connections in the distant capital. It would be impolitic to mention those connections directly, but they crept out through the pauses in the prosecutor’s speech.
The governor motioned to the pardons secretary who turned to Perd and asked in a low tone of voice, “Do you have anything to say for yourself?” He used a low tone of voice because he couldn’t see any reason why anyone should listen to someone with Perd’s record.
From his position with his face on the paving stones, Perd just said, “Mercy, your honor, mercy!” Then he was silent.
The prosecutor smiled. The pardons secretary didn’t smile (he didn’t really know how), but he managed to look satisfied. No sad story to touch the gracious governor’s heart and produce a pardon or even a commutation.
“You beg for mercy,” said the governor, “and mercy you shall have.” Shock swept through the audience chamber. The prosecutor opened his mouth to protest, but then he saw the determined look on the governor’s face. Connections in the capital were all well and good, but the capital was two weeks journey to the south, and the governor was right here. The prosecutor decided it would be better to be silent. He could include a note in his next letter to friends and family, perhaps starting a rumor that would weaken the governor’s position with his superiors.
“I place before you a choice,” the governor continued, allowing this idea to sink in. “Out in the courtyard there is a headsman, with his axe sharpened. He is quite a good headsman, and will doubtless remove your head efficiently and with minimum pain. Considering that you could be executed by less pleasant methods, you should consider this a good option. On the other hand, I have a friend who is travelling north into the wilderness to search for gold and precious stones. He will probably be travelling for two or more years. He is a skilled man, and I doubt you will escape him. If you should think of escape, or of doing him harm, you should be aware that I give him my blanket permission to kill you, with no questions asked. If you are more of a burden on him than a help, then he can kill you just for that. Should you return from this trip alive, you will be granted my pardon and your freedom.”
The prosecutor had lost his smile when the governor first mentioned mercy, but now he had it back. The look on the pardons secretary’s face had gone from a carefully practiced strict neutrality to one of satisfaction. Perd did not look like the sort of person who could survive one of those trips to the north. The governor was clearly being extraordinarily cruel by providing this choice between two deaths.
The governor looked at Perd, who was too frightened to look up. The mountains immediately to the north were known to be a good source of many precious things, but they were also known to be a place of incredible danger. The explorers and miners who travelled in that area were known to be the toughest and nastiest people anywhere. He could very easily endure months or even years of agony, and still be killed, or die accidentally, before he could return home. A clean beheading almost sounded attractive!
Almost! But not quite. The alternative sentence did keep him alive, and offered some hope, however little. Perd thought, was better than none.
“Your honor, I will go with your friend,” said Perd. He almost thanked the governor for his mercy, but under the circumstances he thought that wouldn’t sound sincere. Nobody could expect him to be thankful for a slow death instead of a fast one.
He was taken in chains to the explorer, name Ka’at. He was left in chains in an unfurnished room overnight. The next morning Ka’at dragged him out into the courtyard where he saw two fully packed mules. Ka’at was in his travelling gear as well. He wondered if he would make the entire journey in chains. Before they went out of the city gates, however, Ka’at took him to a blacksmith’s shop, where the chains were removed, but replaced by a set that would handicap his movement less, but nonetheless make him much slower than Ka’at. The latter looked very fit and quick as well.
So Perd began his march into the mountains still in chains, albeit lighter ones. He was still expected to work and carry a pack. He wanted to be angry because of the pack, but as he started to open his mouth to complain, he realized that the pack Ka’at was carrying himself was substantially larger than his, and heavier even if one considered the weight of the chains. So he thought better of that complaint.
He knew that those who mined gemstones up in these mountains, and often searched for treasure from ancient times, were considered dangerous and uncouth. Ka’at, on the other hand, hardly said a word during the day. In the evening, he would make comments on what Perd had done during the day, and what he should do. He’d always end his comments by saying something like, “You’ve been more of a help than a burden today,” or “You’ve been more of a burden than a help, but I’ll let it pass,” or sometimes “You’ve been about as much trouble as help.”
Since he thought his life depended on it, Perd paid attention, and tried to do the things that made him more of a help than a burden. These things involved habits he had never learned before, such as learning how to cook a meal rather than expecting someone else to do so for him, how to mend and sew, how to care for the mules, and eventually how to hunt. By the time Ka’at gave him a hunting bow, he was so far into the mountains and so uncertain of how one would get home, that the thought of killing his master never occurred to him.
Then came the day when Ka’at removed the chains. He didn’t lecture about it. He just called Perd over, and with a few quick strokes of hammer and chisel, removed the chains. Again, partly because he had no idea where to go, and partly because he was now in the habit of doing the day to day chores, Perd didn’t think seriously of running. When he thought about his situation, he was amazed that he didn’t hate Ka’at. He’d assumed he would hate someone who had the power of life and death over him. Despite his pleas for mercy, deep inside himself he had hated the governor as well. Who was he to have Perd’s life in his hands?
But Ka’at worked hard than Perd could ever manage, even though Perd was finding himself stronger and stronger. He was doing work that only weeks before he had no idea how to do. Now it came easily. And they were finding gems as well. It took a lot of digging, but as the bags on the mules became lighter and lighter as they used up their supplies, they were being filled again with valuable items. Looking at a Ruby that he and Ka’at had just dug up, Perd suddenly realized why such stones commanded such high prices. He knew there was nowhere inside his homeland where one could find them. The trip would pay well, but there were few people who could survive this. He knew that without Ka’at’s knowledge, particularly of the wild animals, they would both have been dead.
Then it happened. It could happen to anyone, no matter how skilled. It had happened to Perd earlier in the trip, and Ka’at had been there to save him. But this time, it was Ka’at who stepped on the wrong stone, which broke off, and in turn loosened others, resulting in a fall. Ka’at ended up hanging over a gorge from a single small tree. He was in Perd’s power.
Instantly, the thought came to Perd’s mind. If he just let Ka’at go, he would be free. He need never return home to where he was known. He could find another place to live. But he rejected the thought instantly. It wasn’t until Ka’at was back on the trail that Perd realized that it hadn’t been his need of a guide to get home that stopped him from just letting Ka’at die. No, he’d suddenly realized that he liked the older man and didn’t want to see him fall. Yes, he’d realized how his sentence could end with Ka’at’s death, but he’d rejected it. It was an odd feeling. He couldn’t recall doing anything for anyone before just because he liked them.
Ka’at, as usual, was quiet. He just nodded his thanks. That evening he said simply, “You were a great help to me today.” Was that a twinkle in his eyes? With Ka’at, who could tell?
The day came when Ka’at and Perd rode back into town. They looked much the worse for wear. To Perd’s surprise, Ka’at led them straight to the palace. To Perd’s even greater surprise, they were admitted to the governor’s private audience chamber. Ka’at walked up to the governor’s desk and spread out the rubies they had found. They had a few other things, but that was more than 90% of the value of what they had brought out of the mountains.
“They’re all there,” said Ka’at, spreading the rubies out on the desk. He divided them up, two thirds in one pile and another third in another.
He looked at Perd and pointed to the smaller pile. “Take them,” he said. Perd knew from their discussions in the mountains that an assistant such as himself, always supposing the man was free and not condemned to work for nothing, would normally get five or ten percent of the take they had helped find. This was a junior partner’s share.
Perd just looked at the stones.
“Take them,” said the governor. “You’ve fulfilled the terms I set.”
“Now tell me,” said the storyteller, “Did the governor act graciously? If so, in what way? Which of his actions were actions of grace, and which not? Should he have been known as the gracious governor?”