This is the second part of my historical story that takes place in the ancient Korean kingdom of Silla. The first half can be found HERE.
Yongchang told his companion that the clearing was very close; both men proceeded cautiously, sacrificing speed for stealth. They heard voices from up ahead, loud and raucous with complete disregard to what may be lurking in the forest. The old man urged his young companion to wait as he stalked ahead. After a few drawn out moments, he returned.
“We need to make our way to the other side of the clearing,” the old man said.
Yongchang simply nodded. The two men readied their bows and nocked arrows. They crept quietly though the woods until they were on the opposite side of the clearing. Yongchang’s heart was racing; his hands were becoming sticky with sweat. His breath was rapid. He looked at his old companion; the old man’s face looked highly agitated.
“We must wait until the men separate,” The old man whispered.
There were five men in the clearing, seated close together around a pit fire. They were talking loud enough that Yongchang could make out bits of what they were saying. One man was talking about something the group had done. After a while Yongchang realized the man was talking about the murder.
Then one of the men stood up. He was tall, charismatic, and sinister. A thick and ugly scar traced his face horizontally from the bottom of his right ear to the tip of his right nostril. It made his face seem gruesomely unbalanced. His eyebrows were dark and thick; they cast heavy shadows on the man’s small eyes. He was well dressed in the silk clothes of a noble, but unlike the bright hues of the common court dress, this man’s clothes were only of dark, shadowy colors. A short sword hung at his belt. He stood erect like a fighter, and spoke with a voice that was more beastly than human, a deep and aggressive growl. When he spoke the rest of the men were silent.
Even though Yongchang could not make out every word, he understood the general nature of what was being said. The man speaking was the assassin, and he had killed the Queen’s nephew in an attempt to spark a revolt. He had been hired by the traditionalists who were planning to overthrow the Queen. He assured his men that they were doing the right thing. When the old order was restored, they would return to the capital as heroes.
Heroes. The word bit deep at Yongchang’s nerves. How could this man consider himself a hero? He was nothing but a killer, ruthless and cold-hearted. Yongchang’s fist clenched until his fingernails began to bite at the fleshy part of his palm. This newfound anger was beginning to usurp his fear.
After a short time, the men began to separate. Two of the men stayed at the fire, which was dug in near center of the clearing. Two others moved much closer to where Yongchang and his leader waited and began cleaning their swords, their backs to the danger. The assassin paced around, deep in thought, his hand resting on the pommel of his sword.
The old man turned and gave Yongchang a silent signal. Yongchang pulled back on his bowstring, took a deep breath and aimed down the shaft of his arrow.
The two arrows screamed towards the unsuspecting men. Neither had time to turn before the hits on their backs toppled them forward. The other three men looked towards their dead comrades as the two warriors emerged from the shadows.
Yongchang rushed out into the open, readying another arrow as he went. The two men at the fire saw him and charged, drawing their swords. Meanwhile, the old man sprinted off to the right, heading straight for the assassin. Yongchang pulled back and fired at one of the approaching men. The arrow buzzed through the air, striking the man in the shoulder. He was pushed backwards, and collided with his comrade. This gave Yongchang enough time to nock another arrow and fire at the same man. The second arrow impacted the man’s chest, bringing him to the ground.
The second man was almost on him now, so Yongchang dropped his bow and drew his short sword. He braced to parry as the charging man’s sword crashed into his and threw him backwards with an echoing clang of iron. At the same time, he saw that the old man had confronted the assassin, and the pair was locked in combat at the other side of the clearing.
Yongchang lashed out at his opponent with a downward slash. The man sidestepped around it and counterattacked. The blow grazed Yongchang’s arm before he managed to block it with his own blade. Pain shot up the length of his arm. He gritted his teeth and struck back. The man blocked the blow. Yongchang attacked again. The man parried three more times before Yongchang landed a piercing stab to the man’s gut, causing the man to stagger backwards.
Yongchang couldn’t help but to occasionally glance at the fight between the old man and the assassin. The old man knocked the killer back and dust bellowed up where the man crashed to the ground. The old man attacked, but the assassin grabbed his arm, and with a foot on the old man’s abdomen, flipped him over. The old man struggled to his knees as the assassin charged him. He blocked, but the assassin swung his sword around and found his mark, gouging deep into the old man’s chest.
Yongchang was staggered by the sight of the killing blow. Sweat dripped down and burned his eyes and he could feel the blood running down his arm, pooling at the back of his hand. Shock overtook him as his captain’s body fell face first into the dirt; the assassin turned to look at the boy, a sadistic pleasure marking the killer’s face.
Yongchang’s breath stopped for a moment, for a moment his anger subsided. Once again fear confronted him. The old man lay breathless on the ground. Beyond the sound of battle, Yongchang could hear the sound of blackbirds, scavengers drawn in by the smell of death. If the old man could fall, here in this sacred place, what chance would a mere boy have? His mind shivered. As he thought about his companion’s murder, his anger returned, this time as a tempest.
Yongchang’s body was stiff, but his current opponent–the one he had forgotten–had gained his senses now and attacked in a bull rush. Tremors of fury shook Yongchang’s arms and he channeled his rage to the tip of his blade. As the man came upon him, Yongchang spun around in a full circle, maneuvering away from the man’s attack, bringing his sword around in an open arc, turning gracefully like a court dancer, dancing with the wind, hearing his blade cutting through the air, watching as his opponent realized the mistake, watching as the man tried to turn around, but it was too late. Yongchang finished his turn, slicing his sword though the back of his enemy’s neck, dropping the man to the ground.
Yongchang paused. He could hear the wind whistling. The trees swayed to the sound of the wind’s music, as leaves danced across the battlefield. His nostrils filled with the smells of blood and ash, and from the distance, the scent of freshly bloomed cherry blossoms. His breath softened. He loosened his grip on his sword, pointed to the dirt; not enough to drop the weapon, just enough to release the tension that filled his arm. It fled his arm like the snap of a bowstring. He felt the touch of the wind running like gentle fingers through his hair. His mouth hung open, releasing heavy breaths. Again, Yongchang saw his leader lying on the ground. He swallowed hard.
The assassin was approaching steadily, and Yongchang could feel his strength returning as the rage filled his body and gave him purpose. He screamed and charged. A look of surprise crossed the assassin’s face as the man quickly brought his sword up to block the blow. The sound of clashing iron shook the trees. The killer put his foot back to brace himself.
Yongchang noticed movement in the assassin’s shoulder and was able to anticipate the next attack. He dodged it and slashed fiercely forward. The assassin jumped back as the tip of Yongchang’s sword whistled past his gut. The killer stabbed Yongchang in the shoulder of his already wounded arm. Both men stepped away from each other, panting. Yongchang’s legs trembled with exhaustion.
“Run away boy. There’s no need to die here like your friend.” The assassin’s voice had a foul tone.
“Traitor! Murderer!” Yongchang screamed.
The trees echoed in agreement. Yongchang wanted to say more, but the words would not come to him. He fought with all his strength just to keep his breath. Tears and sweat burned his eyes.
“Traitor? Who’s the traitor boy?” the assassin said. “You’re allowing a woman to defile divine law!” The assassin paused to breathe, stretching his back to open the way for much needed air.
“It doesn’t matter anyways,” he said. “The revolt has already begun. Soon all past mistakes will be mended.” The assassin rolled his neck and brought his sword up.
The end of Yongchang’s patience washed away. He would not let this vile man call his Queen a mistake. Yongchang charged again, screaming with the fury of the gods. The assassin pushed the blow off to the right and counterattacked, cutting Yongchang across the breast. Yongchang recoiled at the pain, but his anger held him steady. He struck again. When his opponent blocked, Yongchang reached down and tripped his leg. The killer fell hard onto his back and grunted. Yongchang swung down with his sword. The assassin grabbed his arm and with a foot on Yongchang’s abdomen, flipped him over.
The killer jumped to his feet and charged the fallen boy, his left hand moving forward as his right hand drew the sword back for a powerful thrust. Yongchang saw the killer lunging forward; he took a deep breath and tried to bring his blade up. The assassin thrust hard with his sword, screaming as he threw the whole of his body’s momentum into the attack. Yongchang screamed back, shuffling his body to the right and moving his head as the sword impacted the dirt next to his ear. He could feel his own sword as it glided between the killer’s ribs, deep into his body. The assassin let out a gasp.
Blood dripped from his mouth. He looked down at the boy; the assassin’s face was marked with shock and fear. The killer’s leg gave out and he dropped to his knees, Yongchang’s sword still planted deep in his chest. He managed to let out one last wheezing breath, before he fell back on his legs, dead.
Yongchang picked himself up off the ground. His hand and arm were sticky with blood, and his hair was matted. He was still breathing hard, but the tremors of rage were subsiding, gradually being replaced by cold shivers. The mist had started to return, mixing with the smoke of the dying fire. His chest and arm throbbed, but the pain dulled with each passing moment.
Stumbling over to the body of his companion, he knelt by the quiet body, putting his fingers to the man’s face, tracing the many scars that shaped it, gave it character. He did not have time to bury his captain, it was urgent that he return to the capital, back to the Queen. Even so, he would not leave his leader’s body out to be ripped apart by the birds; that would be the traitor’s fate.
He dragged the old man’s body into the woods and hastily covered it with rocks, dirt and brush. He hoped that would suffice for now and promised the old man he would return to do it right, once the Queen was safe. The wind whispered reassuringly through the trees that stood guard over the fallen warrior.
. . .
Yongchang urged his horse down the main street of the city. Few people walked the main street, though he could hear the sound of angry mobs at other corners of the city, confronting the Royal Guard. He could also see the concerned faces of others from behind the windows of their homes.
The few people on the street moved out of his way as he approached. Scrambling guards, most of whom knew him, simply acknowledged him as he passed and returned to their chaotic duties. From what Yongchang could tell, violence had not yet broken out, but the traditionalists had used the murder to cause fervor in their sympathizers. The threat of violence was in the air.
Where was General Kim Yusin? Where was the Kingdom’s hero when everything was falling into chaos? Yongchang scolded himself for the boyish faith he had placed in the General. Kim was not the kind of hero he wanted to be.
Yongchang leapt from his horse the moment he reached the palace gates. The guards recognized him immediately, but were shocked to see the worn condition he was in. Yongchang rushed through the halls, filled with purpose and need. Servants and guards jumped out of his way as he passed by. A young girl who was carrying buckets of water tripped and spilt it all over the floor, but Yongchang could not be concerned with that now. He ran up to the door of the throne room and stopped.
What was he going to say to the Queen? He in fact had never been in the throne room, had never knelt in the presence of the Queen before. He had always known who she was, for he had been raised with stories of her wisdom and courage. Of how she sat on her throne like a goddess, commanding all to her will. How could he speak to a woman like that? How could he tell her that her lifelong bodyguard was dead, and the murder of her own nephew was part of a political plot to overthrow her?
And from that thought sprouted another. Why had he been looking so far for a hero in Kim Yusin, when a true hero had been fighting right beside him? The old man had given his life to protect the kingdom, to protect the Queen. Yongchang thought he could feel the old man’s reassuring hand on his shoulder again, urging him on. A darkness was settling on the land, one that put the Queen in mortal danger. Now it was his turn, it was his chance to be the hero. He would continue where the old man had left off.
With this new resolve, he took his first steps into the throne room.