Digging through my archives, I found this little gem. This was my final project for my second level short story class in college. I remember the instructor because he looked remarkably like J.J. Abrams before Abrams was a thing. We read Revolutionary Road in that class and the rest of my peers were trying their best to emulate Yates. I, on the other hand, was writing action pieces.
This story also draws on my Korean history/archaeology/pop culture study. I wrote a 70-page paper on Silla Kingdom about halfway through my time at the UofM. This story was derived from that–with artistic license, of course. It is a sort of historical fiction, if a bit limited and amateurish on the history part.
The assassin had a head start, but the two men were gaining.
Yongchang urged his horse to a slow stop, as he and his companion came to the base of the mountain. Yongchang looked up at the rising land. A beaten path wound its way up through the jagged trees. He had led his companion to this path, knowing it was the fastest route to the top, but it was too small and hazardous for them to bring their horses, so the animals would have to be left behind. The two men slipped off their mounts and tied them to nearby trees. They removed what they needed from the saddle bags and headed up the path.
It was a large green mountain, with crooked pines protruding from the ground like broken fingers. The previous hours’ rain had left a wandering mist that carried the slight scent of dew and sulfur. The trees let little of the available light reach the forest floor.
The men followed the packed dirt path swiftly as it weaved its way between the trees, carefully stepping over the large roots that jutted out of the dirt. Yongchang, the younger of the two, looked around at the trees and the mist that sifted between them. The wind was fresh and wild. It whispered through the trees, brown trees that stood like sentinels, like an imposing army ready to drop on these two intruders. The pair rushed at a pace that was difficult for Yongchang to keep.
He was a handsome young man. He wore a short bow around his shoulders, which rested on a quiver of arrows and a scabbard securing a short sword with an intricately crafted golden pommel. His clothes were woven of a silken blue, patterned with fierce golden tigers. As he ran, he had trouble avoiding the branches that seemed to purposefully grab at his weapons. Yongchang’s older companion moved without incident, fluid like water, maneuvering around the sharp roots without even looking at them, as if some sixth sense told him where to step every time.
The two men ran hard, single-minded in their action. The assassin they pursued had killed a court noble, and it had been she who had sent them out after the killer. They ran until the path diverged into two directions.
“Where do these paths go?” The old man asked.
“The path to the right leads up to the temple,” Yongchang paused, “and the path to the left ends at a large clearing.”
“He wouldn’t be headed for the temple. The monks have sided with the Queen.” The old man said. “And the tracks going up the other way are fresh.” The old man examined the tracks, “It doesn’t seem like he knows we’re after him. Maybe he’ll go to that summit to hide out.”
“Captain,” Yongchang panted, his arms braced on his knees.
The old man held a hand up, commanding silence, and pushed Yongchang up the path again. Yongchang had not recovered from the last run, but slowly got his feet moving. As the two men moved furtehr, Yongchang was becoming more exhausted and clumsier. He stumbled, or occasionally tripped on a root, or got his short bow caught in overhanging branches. His lungs burned from lack of sufficient air and his legs began losing their strength.
Suddenly the old man grabbed him and with a hand over his mouth, dragged him backwards into the dense bushes, away from trail. The old man was crouching and still. The silence was broken by the sound of something coming clumsily down the trail. It was a man, cursing the trees with every step; he stumbled down the mountain with the grace of a bull.
The man hastily pushed a branch aside, only to get slapped in the face by one further down. Once again he cursed the trees. He was quite vulgar. As the man passed by Yongchang, the stench of alcohol could be smelled on the his ragged clothes.
The old man looked at Yongchang with a finger over his lips, and when he got an assuring nod from his young partner, slipped out of the woods and on to the trail behind the man. He secured a dagger in his right hand. The drunken man hit himself again on a tree branch, but this time his rage would not be contained and he turned to break the branch in two. As he turned, he saw the old warrior approaching him, but it was too late. The old man pounced, subduing the man quickly and quietly.
The old man knelt there for a moment, one hand massaging his lower back. He breathed heavily. He silently struggled to his feet before waiving his young companion out of the woods. The old man sifted though the dead man’s clothes, finding a money pouch and a paper. After a few moments he spoke:
“This man was sent out for supplies. The killer is planning to camp here for a while.”
He handed the paper to the boy. It had writing on it. If this drunken man could read and write, he was certainly a noble, albeit a despicable one.
“Why would they stay here, so close to the capital?” Yongchang asked.
The old man let out a heavy breath. “The roads are filled with soldiers looking for the assassin, so he would have a hard time making it out to the country now. He’ll try to hide here until the army is called off, then perhaps he will flee to Baekche.”
“Baekche? But Baekche is our enemy. Why would he go there?”
“He is a traitor, so he will not be safe in this kingdom. If he was working for the traditionalists opposed to the Queen, then it seems his plan has failed to have any effect. As far as I know, the nobles have gravitated more to the Queen’s side in response to the murder. You know the man that was killed was her nephew.”
Together the two men dumped the body quietly in the woods and continued their pursuit. Yongchang was struggling to keep his feet moving. The old man let out a heavy sigh, stopped and looked around the area where he stood.
“I can see a small clearing up ahead. That will be a good place to rest for a moment,” the old man said. “Now that we know he is waiting at the summit, we can take our time getting there.”
Yongchang was glad for a chance to rest, his body ached from the heavy running; he had never had to move like that in his life and was nearing complete exhaustion. He sat down next to his leader, resting his back on a tree trunk twice the width of his own body.
“Have some water.” The old man said, handing the boy a deerskin flask. The boy took it and drank in large gulps, spilling much of it on himself.
“I know it’s hard, but you have to push yourself.” The old man said. “I asked the Queen to let me bring you with me. She was hesitant at first, but I needed a guide to lead me up the mountain.” The old man paused.
A political storm had accompanied Queen Seondeok’s advance to the throne of Silla, its first reigning woman. The murder of the Queen’s own nephew had only inflamed the already tense political atmosphere. Yongchang knew about the politics of the court, how the old men thought having a woman ruler was blasphemous. They refused to give her credit for being the great leader she truly was. Yongchang supported the Queen, and to him, the killer he hunted was an enemy, the same as any Baekche soldier.
Yongchang’s companion was an agent of the Queen, but one on the verge his golden years. His beard had long ago begun to gray and he kept all his hair cut short. His face and hands were rough and scarred in many places. He wore common, smoke black clothing that fit loosely to his large body. Yongchang did not know much about this man, except that he was called Hyunsarang. Custom demanded that Yongchang call him Captain. He was a man of the shadows, a spy of sorts, which made Yongchang wonder what kind of relationship he had with the Queen.
Yongchang looked around at the trees. At first he had thought the trees looked foreboding, but now he felt comforted by them. The whisper of the wind welcomed him, its touch cooling the skin of his neck where beads of sweat had begun to stick. He ran a hand through his hair and back across his neck spreading the sweat drops down to his chin. The pleasant scent of flowers and sound of birdsong calmed his running mind. The old man quietly watched the boy.
“I didn’t want to bring you here, to put you in such danger, but I had no choice. So I need you to be brave and keep up.” The old man took a long breath. “Tell me, why do you wish to walk a warrior’s path?”
The boy wasn’t expecting the old man to ask him such a question. As he leaned back on the tree recovering his breath, he thought about the answer. His whole life he had been surrounded by warfare. The threat of warfare, the necessity of it. He was a hwarang, a leader in an elite corps that only the most apt noble youths could join. He had trained many things as a hwarang, philosophy and religion as well as archery and swordsmanship. He had been trained in warfare. Even so, he knew being trained and being experienced were two different things. He worried how his lack of the latter would affect his ability to perform in the battle that was sure to come. Battle was inevitable.
Yongchang understood now why the old man had brought him along. Yongchang had walked this mountain many times before. On many occasions he had led his followers up this mountain, following the lead of Buddhist monks. The monks had taught the young men about the spiritual nature of mountains, about their significance. These mountains served several purposes. The kingdom’s capital was surrounded by mountains on three sides. With the other defended by the sea, it made the city near impenetrable.
“Well?” The old man seemed to be getting impatient. Yongchang had almost forgotten that he had been asked a question.
“General Kim Yusin.” Yongchang said finally.
The old man’s eyes opened slightly at the sound of the name. “The kingdom’s hero? What of him?” The old man asked.
“Ever since I was a little boy, I heard stories of General Kim, of his amazing skill and courage.” Yongchang said. “Did you know that he charged the defensive line of a Baekche fortress single-handed? He drove his men forward and eventually helped his army to capture the fortress entirely.”
“Yes, I know.” The old man smiled slightly. “Everyone knows.”
“I want to be like Kim Yusin.” Yongchang said, his voice weakening to a whisper. “I want to be a hero.”
“Hmph. Such grand dreams will only hurt you in the end.” The old man paused. Looking to the trees he spoke more softly, but resolute. “You should keep your thoughts here, in the present.”
Yongchang paused for a moment to look at the old man. A feeling of loyal respect caused him to smile slightly.
“Are you feeling better?” The old man asked. Yongchang nodded.
The woods grew suddenly silent. The birdsong that had helped calm Yongchang’s mind was gone; it made him tense again. Heavy footsteps began to approach from the woods on the other side of the clearing. Both men backed into the bushes bringing their bows to hand; crouching low, they readied their arrows.
The air filled with the soft creaking of crushed leaves and twigs. The two men drew back the strings on their bows, aiming at the trees across the clearing. Yongchang’s arms were tense with anticipation. The only things he could hear were the sounds of his breath, the tension in his bowstring and the approaching footsteps, those of a creature which seemed completely oblivious to the immediate danger it was headed for.
Yongchang stared down the shaft of his arrow. The clustered trees and heavy mist made it impossible to see what was coming, and this made him more nervous. He felt a hand on his shoulder and jerked in surprise to see the old man with a finger to his lips. He held his bow off to the side, and calmly pointed out into the clearing.
The boy could finally see it. A great white tiger slowly emerged from the woods, pausing with every few steps to sniff the ground. He was relieved that it wasn’t forest bandits or assassins coming out of the woods, but the tiger filled him with a different sort of fear. His arms were still tense as he lowered his bow, not once taking his eyes off the large beast.
Then the tiger looked at him. Yongchang was struck still with terror, the golden eyes of the great beast boring into him. It knew where he was; it was going to come and eat him. He couldn’t move to see if his companion was going to save him; he could only stare ahead, locked in the eyes of the great tiger. After a while, the beast broke its gaze and walked away. Yongchang once again felt the grip of his leader’s hand on his shoulder.
“We have been blessed.” The old man broke the silence. “The shamans say that the spirit of the mountain often takes the form of a great white tiger.”
The reassuring hand of his leader did not help to clam Yongchang. The fear that the tiger had filled him with only served to amplify his anxiety for the upcoming fight. A fear that has nested itself deep inside him. There was too much resting on his success. The hopes of his Captain, his father, his Queen. His hopes of having General Kim learn his name. Kim Yusin would not have quivered in fear at the sight of a tiger. Yongchang’s hopes had become dark and twisted, morphing into fear, fear of failure and fear of death. He would soon be in combat with experienced warriors. But he had no experience, he was terrified.
When the tiger wandered back into the forest, the two men quickly gathered their things, and once again started up the path. The way was getting rougher the higher they climbed; it had become nothing more than a deer trail. If Yongchang had not personally known about this path, he could have quickly gotten lost. He doubted his companion would get lost though; the man seemed an efficient tracker, constantly looking at tracks and broken branches, signs of recent travel. With every step they took, they got closer to where the assassin would be, and this began to concern Yongchang…
Continued in the next post, HERE