Alone in a crowd of rugged men, nursing his drink in the far corner of the old post town's only tavern: Kaim.
A single man strides in through the tavern door. Massively built, he wears the garb of a warrior. His soiled uniform bespeaks a long journey. Fatigue marks his face, but his eyes wear a penetrating gleam—the look of a fighting man on active duty.
The tavern's din hushes instantly. Every drunken eye in the place fastens on the soldier with awe and gratitude.
The long war with the neighboring country has ended at last, and the men who fought on the front lines are returning to their homes. So it is with this military man.
The soldier takes a seat at the table next to Kaim's, and downs a slug of liquor with the forcefulness of a hard drinker—a man who drinks to kill his pain.
Two cups, three, four...
Another customer approaches him, bottle in hand, wearing an ingratiating grin—a typical crafty town punk.
"Let me offer you a drink," wheedles the man, "as a token of gratitude for your heroic efforts on behalf of the fatherland."
The soldier unsmilingly allows the man to fill his cup.
"How was it at the front? I'm sure you performed many valiant deeds on the battlefield."
The soldier empties his cup in silence.
The punk refills the cup and adopts an ever more fawning smile.
"Now that we're friends, how about telling me some war tales?
You've got such big, strong arms, how many enemy soldiers did you ki—"
Without a word, the soldier hurls the contents of his cup into the man's face.
The punk flies into a rage and draws his knife.
No sooner does it leave its sheath than Kaim's fist sends it flying through the air.
Faced with the powerful united front of Kaim and the soldier, the punk runs out muttering curses.
The two big men watch him go, then share a faint smile. Kaim doesn't have to speak with the soldier to know that he lives in deep sadness. For his part, the soldier (having cheated death any number of times) is aware of the shadow that lurks in Kaim's expression.
The tavern's din returns.
Kaim and the soldier pour each other drinks.
"I've got a wife and daughter I haven't seen since I shipped out," says the soldier. "It's been three long years."
He lets himself smile shyly now for the first time as he takes a photograph of his wife and daughter from his pocket and shows it to Kaim: the wife a woman of dewy freshness, the daughter still very young.
"They're the reason I survived.
The thought of going home to them alive was all that sustained me in battle."
"Is your home far from here?"
"No, my village is just over the next pass. I'm sure they've heard the news that the war is over and can hardly wait to have me home."
He could get there tonight if he wanted to badly enough. It was that close.
"But..." the soldier downs a mouthful of liquor and groans.
"Afraid? Of what?"
"I want to see my wife and daughter, but I'm afraid to have them see me.
I don't know how many men I've killed these past three years. I had no choice. I had to do it to stay alive. If I was going to get back to my family, I had no choice but to kill one enemy soldier after another, and each and every one of those men had families they had left at home."
It was the code of war, the soldier's destiny.
To stay alive in battle, you had to go on killing men before they could kill you.
"I had no time to think about such things at the front. I was too busy trying to survive. I see it now, though—now that the war is over. Three years of sin are carved into my face. This is the face of a killer. I don't want to show this face to my wife and daughter."
The soldier pulls out a leather pouch from which he withdraws a small stone.
He tells Kaim it is an unpolished gemstone, something he found shortly after he left for the battlefield.
"A gemstone?" Kaim asks, unconvinced. The stone on the table is a dull black without a hint of the gleam a gem should have.
"It sparkled when I first found it. I was sure my daughter would love it when I brought it home to her."
"Gradually, though, the stone lost its gleam and turned cloudy."
"Every time I killed an enemy soldier, something like the stain of his blood would rise to the surface of the stone. As you can see, it's almost solid black now after three years. The stone is stained by the sins I've committed. I call it my 'sin stone.'"
"You don't have to blame yourself so harshly," says Kaim,
"You had to do it to stay alive."
"I know that." says the soldier. "I know that. But still... just like me, the men I killed had villages to go home to, and families waiting for them there..."
The soldier then says to Kaim, "You, too, I suppose. You must have a family." Kaim gives his head a little shake. "Not me." he says. "No family."
"A home village at least?"
"I don't have any place to go home to."
"Eternal traveler, eh?"
"Uh-huh. That's me."
The soldier chuckles softly and gives Kaim a sour smile. It is hard to tell how fully he believes what Kaim has told him. He slips the "sin stone" into the leather pouch and says,
"You know what I think? If the stone turned darker every time I took a life, it ought to get some of its gleam back every time I save a life."
Instead of answering, Kaim drains the last drops of liquor from his cup and rises from the table. The soldier remains in his chair and Kaim, staring down at him, offers him these words of advice:
"If you have a place you can go home to, you should go to it. Just go, no matter how much guilt you may have weighing you down. I'm sure your wife and daughter will understand. You're no criminal. You're a hero: you fought your heart out to stay alive."
"I'm glad I met you." says the soldier. "I needed to hear that."
He holds out his right hand to Kaim, who grasps it in return.
"I hope your travels go well." says the soldier.
"And your travels will soon be over," says Kaim with a smile,
starting for the door.
Just then the punk charges at Kaim from behind, wielding a pistol.
"Watch out!" bellows the soldier and rushes after Kaim.
As Kaim whirls around, the punk takes aim and shouts,
"You can't treat me like that, you son of a bitch!"
The soldier flies between the two men
and takes a bullet in the gut.
And so, as he so desperately wished to do, the soldier has saved someone's life.
Ironically, it is for the life of Kaim, a man who can neither age nor die,
that the soldier has traded his one and only life.
Sprawled on the floor, nearly unconscious, the soldier
thrusts the leather pouch into Kaim's hand.
"Look at my 'sin stone,' will you?
"Maybe...maybe." he says, chuckling weakly,
"some of its shine has come back."
Blood spurts from his mouth, strangling the laugh.
Kaim looks inside the bag and says,
"It's sparkling now. It's clean."
"It is?" gasps the soldier. "Good. My daughter will be so glad..."
He smiles with satisfaction and holds his hand out for the pouch.
Gently, Kaim lays the pouch on the palm of his hand and folds the man's fingers over it.
The soldier draws his last breath, and the pouch falls to the floor.
The dead man's face wears a peaceful expression.
The stone, however—the man's 'sin stone,' which has rolled from the open pouch—is as black as ever.