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Nim Mong-geun wished he was a young man again as he puffed after his charge across the parade ground of Chu-sang Fortress.
“My Lady, please wait!”
“Your too slow Mong-geun! I didn’t push the horses last night just to be slowed down now.”
The reckless smile that Gyuk Lee-hwa flashed over her shoulder sent the aging soldier back to memories of a time without gray in his hair. Then it had been her royal father who had rushed ahead of him, often into lethal danger with that same cheerful recklessness.
“The enemy isn’t going to run away my Lady.” Mong-geun panted. “They’ve come to invade, not retreat.”
His words fell upon deaf ears as Lee-hwa half ran up the steps to the parapet, oblivious to looks of shock this won her from the soldiers on duty. Visiting royalty was unusual enough, but a royal woman in armor? Her hair cut short and tied in a soldier’s topknot? Mong-geun felt sorry for them.
Finally the old soldier mounted the wall and moved to join his charge. Barely noticing the salutes of the soldiers who saw the ornate shield of the King’s Favored that he carried. Mong-geun stood beside Lee-hwa and stared down upon the open plain, and the distant army that had come to conquer them. This was nothing new for the Hanguuli people. If it wasn’t the armies of the arrogant Wei emperors attacking them from the south, as now, it was Yamatai pirates raiding the coasts. If not the Yamatai, it was the thrice damned, goat fucking barbarians from the steppes to the north.
Mong-geun observed the enemy encampment with a practiced eye. The huge banners of the imperial army flapped vigorously in the morning breeze just near enough to make out their insignias. From the walls, the sentries that guarded the camp looked like ants.
Lee-hwa whistled in a most un-ladylike fashion. “Five divisions. Emperor Wurong is certainly determined to live up to his regnal name.”
“Well, if he really want’s his ‘martial glory’ he’d have better luck slaughtering soft-bellied Dravidhans.” Mong-geun replied. “His ancestors should have taught him what it means to fight us.”
Chu-sang Fortress, sat at the mouth of a wide valley between mountains, marked the southernmost extent of the Isthmus of Nimkwang. Bounded to east and west by the waters of the Falernian and Secuban Seas, the Isthmus was one of the few places where one could cross on foot. Naturally this offered a great advantage to those who could control it. As a result, countless rulers had sought to conquer the Isthmus. Perpetual invasions into the rugged hills of their homeland had bred the Hanguuli into a stern indomitable race. Countless armies had wasted themselves before the walls of Chu-sang and there was not a single un-blooded warrior who defended them this day.
“Look well men. The emperor has sent us ants to squash.”
Both Mong-geun and his charge turned to see the fortress commander striding towards them along the parapet. The men in earshot chuckled at his remark. Rii Sung-jae, blunt, squat and broad-shouldered kept his face impassive as he approached his esteemed guests. Even so Mong-geun sensed his resentment and couldn’t help a twinge of sympathy for the man. Sung-jae already had enough concerns in preparing to resist the coming invasion without the sudden late night arrival of one of the king’s Favored and a princess of seventeen determined to fight beside his men. She had actually said that to his face the previous night.
“Lord Nim, Princess.” The commander said, bowing. “I hope your night was restful, we had not time for appropriate furnishings.”
“Your hospitality was most generous Commander Rii, you need not concern yourself.”
Mong-geun felt a smile tug at his lips at Lee-hwa’s attempt at a decorous response. Despite the best efforts of the royal tutors her speech still tended towards abruptness. The child who had rushed eagerly to see the enemy now tried to conceal herself behind courtly manners. His Majesty had been much the same.
“When do you think the enemy shall attack us?”
“Hard to say your highness. It depends on how quickly they marched to get here. If their commander has any sense, he will let them rest for a day or more to recover.”
Which makes this an ideal time to launch a surprise attack. Mong-geun thought. Unless the enemy sentries are especially vigilant it would be easy to slip a force around their flank. Any commander worth his sword would jump at such a chance.
Then Mong-geun saw the look in the other’s eyes and understood. Unfortunately Rii Sung-jae was destined to have his hopes dashed that morning.
“Have you sent anyone to scout the enemy camp?”
“Not yet, your highness.”
“I see. Commander, of course you will inform me of any plans to attack the enemy.”
The commander barely suppressed a grimace as he bowed. “As you command your highness.”
. . .
Gyuk Lee-hwa turned away from Commander Rii and made her way down the wall stairs. Inwardly she felt a private glow of satisfaction. Now the man had no choice but to allow her to fight. Mong-geun wasn’t happy either, she could tell by his silence as he accompanied her back to their quarters.
“My lady. . .” He began, once they were alone.
“You disapprove?” Lee-hwa asked. Her voice was slightly muffled as she removed the lacquered armor, so that she wore only a cotton tunic and pants.
The old graybeard sighed, “Princess, I know you are eager for your first action. All soldiers know this feeling. However, forcing Commander Rii’s hand in that way-“
“The man’s going to be miserable about me going into battle no matter how many rose petals I cover it with. If he really doesn’t like the idea he can talk to Father about it.”
Mong-geun sighed again. “Which you know he won’t do. His Majesty has been very indulgent with your pursuits, and many in the capital have grown accustomed to it, as have I.”
“Only after you made me sleep in the rain all night.”
A reluctant grin broke through the old man’s disapproval. “Your memory serves you poorly, princess. I didn’t make you do anything. You could have gone inside whenever you chose.”
It was an old joke between them and Lee-hwa returned Mong-geun’s smile.
“My point, your highness, is that countless others will not be used to you. ‘Covering it in rose petals’ as you put it, may not change the facts, but it can make the facts less discomforting for them.”
Lee-hwa shook her head impatiently. “Father always told me that he prized frankness above all else. That’s why he made you one of the Favored after he claimed the throne.”
“You may recall that he and I had been friends for many years so there is an understanding between us. Can you claim such a thing between yourself and Commander Rii? Or anyone here besides myself?”
Lee-hwa scowled at her mentor. Then she reached for her spear, bow and quiver, propped beside her bed.
“I’m going to the practice yard.”
Mong-geun sighed again, but said nothing more.
It did not take long for the princess to find the archery butts. Several of the soldiers paused in their own training to stare as she walked past. Long accustomed to such attention, Lee-hwa didn’t even deign to return the looks as she chose a target, and strung her bow. She noted a few looks of surprise at the ease at which the weapon of bamboo and buffalo horn bent in her hands. That first hard thunk as her first arrow struck the center of the target gave her a rush of satisfaction. So, for a time Lee-hwa was able to forget her frustration at Mong-geun, losing herself in the enjoyment of her skill.
Finally she ran out of shafts and went to pull them out of the targets. It was then that she noticed some of the soldiers doing the same. One of them pulled an arrow from the butt next to hers and Lee-hwa saw how the man had to twist hard to pull it out. Only then did she realize how easily her own arrows came free. The soldier must have felt her stare because he looked back at her. A small smile briefly touched his lips as he too noted how shallowly her arrows had penetrated. Far enough to inflict lethal wounds, but not as deep as his. It was a small point. It was infuriating.
The soldier retrieved his last arrow and rejoined his comrades. Lee-hwa could see him say something inaudible, as well as the wide grins that appeared on the faces of the others. Neither one looked her way or said anything; common soldiers would not have dared, and strode back to the barracks. Give it three hours, a little more, and the whole fort will be talking about the princess and her ‘woman’s bow’.
With an effort Lee-hwa managed to hide her anger. It would be so easy to deal with them. She could simply order Commander Rii to arrest them for insolence towards a royal personage. The penalties for such an offense would be harsh. But she knew, in the end it would only make the rest even more contemptuous of her. Cursing to herself, Lee-hwa retrieved the last of her arrows, took up her spear, and proceeded to dismantle several of the available targets. When she finally registered Mong-geun’s voice calling to her, the sun was high and she was standing amid shreds of straw and sacking.
Lee-hwa turned to face him, brushing a stray hair from her face. “Yes?”
“I’ve received a message from Commander Rii. We are invited to join in a surprise attack on the enemy camp.”
Lee-hwa’s frustration was instantly swept away by the words. “How soon?”
She saw the old man smile at her enthusiasm. “Within the hour.”
. . .
In the end Commander Rii decided to command the expedition himself. Probably so that he could help Mong-geun keep an eye on her. The raiding party of fifty left Chu-sang down a narrow mountain trail that circled around the enemy encampment. Slowly. Lee-hwa was actually surprised by how slowly they went. Every man brought a horse, but instead of mounting, they walked beside the beasts.
“We must save their strength in case we need to retreat quickly.” Was Commander Rii’s terse reply to her question.
For hours they walked. The late spring sun crawled across the sky, and Lee-hwa tried to ignore how hot her armor was becoming. Relief from the heat came slowly as the sun began to set. Relief from boredom came more quickly when the trail finally emptied onto the plain.
At this range the Wei army’s encampment was beginning to look like a field of fireflies as the first campfires were lit. Commander Rii had timed their arrival well, for the sun was now half hidden by the horizon and the land was draped in purple shadows.
Lee-hwa felt a thrill run through her at the simple command. She climbed easily into the saddle, making sure her bow and spear were secure.
“Forward, but slowly. We charge on my command.”
So the party trotted their horses out from cover onto the darkening plain. Lee-hwa nocked arrow to string as she guided the horse with her knees. She felt her heart pounding with excitement. Nine years of training and exercise, of enduring whispers and slights, trading the soft curves of womanhood for a soldier’s strength. Would it finally be rewarded?
The Wei sentries stood by their watch fires, but even so she did not see which one was the first to spot them. A shout in a foreign language rang out. Lee-hwa pointed her bow at the nearest silhouette, drew and loosed. Around her the others did the same. She wished it were light enough to see if it had been her arrow that felled the sentry. Regardless, he fell, as did many others. But the shout had roused the camp and there were cries of confusion amid hastily barked orders from the officers. Fortunately the campfires provided ample illumination and the Hanguuli picked off dozens of the enemy. They fired as they charged and soon they were among the tents, trampling several in the process.
Amid the chaos Lee-hwa felt the blood humming in her veins. She had eschewed her bow and was now lunging at exposed faces and backs with her spear.
She had complained as a child when Mong-geun had refused to teach her the sword.
“You lack the strength.” He had said.
“You said skill is better than strength.” She had argued petulantly.
The old man had laughed. “Yes. In a duel, skill is better. But you only have to kill one enemy in a duel. In battle, you have many enemies to kill, and all is confusion and noise. In battle many of your foes will be wearing armor and you can’t cut down a man in armor. Such foolishness only exists is legends. You don’t kill a man in armor by cutting him down. You have to crush him, to beat him down, and that requires heavy weapons. A great sword, a mace, an axe, and such weapons require strength and stamina to wield in battle. The strongest man will always triumph over the strongest woman in such a test, but the spear? Using that requires skill and accuracy and these qualities care not if they are possessed by man or woman.”
He had made her practice by skewering peaches at a full gallop. Indeed, as her horse pranced among the panicked soldiers Lee-hwa found this kind of fight to be far easier than her training had been. It seemed as if the Wei soldiers moved with painful slowness. Or perhaps she was being endowed with godlike speed. The enemy seemed to wilt before her and her excitement burst forth in shriek of exultant ferocity. This was the joy of battle. The experience of being a warrior, armored and armed, dangerous and invincible.
The fight seemed to last for hours, but in in truth, it was only a few minutes. However surprised they were, the Wei officers reacted with alacrity. And as their shouted orders began to register in the minds of their subordinates, the habits of discipline overcame shock and fear. While his troops and the princess rampaged among the enemy, Rii Sung-jae had kept his head and he now saw that the Hanguuli momentum was gone. He could see a body of Wei swordsmen advancing steadily towards the melee. If they did withdraw soon, their mounts would be surrounded and hamstrung, and they themselves would fall into enemy hands.
The commander pulled a bronze whistle from around his neck and blew. Most of his soldiers reacted instantly. Breaking off from the enemy, they drove their horses back the way they came. A few of the less experienced were too drunk with the fighting lust to heed the call. Lee-hwa was among them, lashing around at any man who dared to come within range. Suddenly she felt a ringing impact on the back of her helmet. The blow was glancing and did not stun her. She turned, snarling at whoever had dared to strike her, and saw it was Mong-geun.
“We must retreat!” He shouted over the din.
Lee-hwa still felt the thrumming in her veins and opened her mouth to object. The old soldier slapped her horse’s rump with his shield and the animal was stung into action. They both galloped after the others and soon made the relative safety of the mountain path. The raiding party had to slow their mounts down to negotiate the narrow trail and Lee-hwa had to pull hard on the reins to avoid a collision with Mong-geun.
Commander Rii was bringing up the rear of the soldiers and Lee-hwa saw that he kept glancing over his shoulder towards the plain. Several long moments passed, and then they heard the hooves.
“Pass the word along the line.” The commander told the horseman in front of him. “We need to speed up, the enemy is pursuing us.”
The canter became not quite a gallop but to Lee-hwa, it sounded like the enemy was still gaining. Her suspicions were confirmed when the first arrows began whickering around her ears. Risking a look over her shoulder she could see the Wei riders. They were coming on as fast they could, despite the dark and the narrow trail. Unless the Hanguuli increased their own speed, there was now way they could escape. Unless the Wei could be slowed down.
Gyuk Lee-hwa unslung her bow, turned in the saddle and fired. The darkness made aiming impossible so all she could do was fire blindly. However on the third attempt she had the satisfaction of hearing the agonized cry of a horse, followed by crashing and shouts of alarm.
That should slow them down for a bit.
Suddenly Lee-hwa felt the bow jerk in her hands. Realizing it had gotten caught on a low-hanging branch, she held on, relying on her horse’s momentum to tug it free. But the branch in question was in fact a thick, low growing maple limb. The bow was well made from layers of wood, glue and horn, and so it did not break. As a result, the princess found herself being jerked violently out of her saddle and into the darkness.
. . .
Awareness returned slowly. Lee-Hwa’s head seemed to be ringing like a temple bell. Gingerly she reached up and felt a crust of dried blood the left side of her head. Slowly, painfully, she rose to feet. As she did so she heard a clattering noise from the quiver on her back. She removed it and felt her heart sink as her hand probed blindly inside. It seemed like most of her arrows were broken.
What does it matter? The thought struck her. I have nothing to shoot them with.
She actually managed a small smile at that. A smile that vanished as the ringing in her head faded behind a throbbing ache. Grimacing against the pain she tried to stock of her surroundings. At first nothing, but tree trunks and undergrowth met her gaze. Then she saw the trail, less than five paces away.
They must have missed me in the dark.
Cautiously, Lee-hwa emerged from the underbrush. There seemed to be no sign, either of the enemy, or her comrades.
It was too dark to see any tracks that might help her. And with the enemy possibly nearby, it was too dangerous for her to wait out the night. Praying that she was heading in the right direction, she began walking. Several paces later something gently knocked against her shoulder. She flinched away but nothing happened. Cautiously she reached out and felt a familiar shape. Her bow. Relief filled her and she tried to pull it free of the branches. It remained in place.
Then she heard the hooves. Just the hooves. No voices raised in search of her. No one calling her name. The enemy was coming this way.
Frantically she jiggled the bow back and forth. She felt less resistance in one direction and pulled that way. At last the bow slid free of the tree limb. The hooves were now thundering in her ears. Lee-hwa scrambled rather ungracefully back under cover of the trees and crouched low, eyes and ears straining. She saw a blur of dark shapes. Heard rough voices in a foreign tongue even over the pounding hoof beats. And then the enemy was past her, their noise fading away.
For a long time Lee-hwa remained where she was, with only the throbbing ache in her head for company. Slowly her frantic energy faded, replaced by an intense lethargy. Reluctantly she regained her feet and resumed walking. She had to get back to the fortress.
Time had little meaning for Gyuk Lee-hwa as she trudged along the trail. At first, to distract herself from her head wound she tried to count heartbeats. In the end she gave up to endeavor as pointless. The pain was slow to fade away and at times she felt light headed. The urge to stop and simply sleep where she was kept whispering to her. In response she sent her mind back to the night Mong-geun had put her out.
She could still remember the incident clear as day. The look of disbelieving dismay and disgust on his face when Father had commanded him to oversee her training was especially memorable.
A warrior must learn endurance. He said, before telling her to stay out in the garden all night during a heavy rain. Much to his amazement, the servants had found her still there the next morning, wet and shivering, but undeterred.
Lee-hwa’s reverie was broken by a sudden spell of dizziness and only by half leaning, half falling against a nearby tree did she avoid toppling to the ground. She waited, heart and skull throbbing once again as her vision slowly regained its focus.
Don’t give up on me yet, old man. I have no intention of wasting the years you gave me.
At last the world stopped spinning and she resumed her weary trek.
. . .
They did not notice Lee-hwa’s absence until the raiding party returned to Chu-sang. The Wei pursuit had been fierce and even after they were safe behind the fortress walls, the enraged cavalrymen had lingered for hours out of bowshot. They hurled insults at Chu-sang’s walls but little else. Commander Rii had declared it too dangerous to send a search party.
“I’m sorry Lord Nim. But I have my own responsibilities.”
The man was right, and his words were apologetic, but Mong-geun still felt physically sickened by them. Responsibility. Even if the king forgave him for this failure he would probably still commit suicide in recompense.
The whole night, Mong-geun stood watch on the eastern wall, trying futilely to pierce the dark woods that masked the trail they had taken. To his surprise, Commander Rii stayed with him for most of the night. He occasionally left to give necessary orders but otherwise he kept vigil with Mong-geun. Time seemed to distort for the old soldier that night. Some moments seemed to last for ages, and yet when the sun began to slowly peek out over the horizon it felt as though mere seconds had passed.
“There doesn’t seem to be any sign of the enemy.” Commander Rii said. “I’ll see if I can organize a search party. Perhaps you should go and rest.”
Mong-geun nodded woodenly in response. In his minds eye he still saw a stubborn girl-child, wrapped in a sodden cloak with a running nose. A young woman practicing with bow and arrow until her tender fingers bled. Skewering fruit from the royal peach trees at full gallop. A delighted smile at his increasingly warm praise at her progress.
“Old man! Old man!”
At first Mong-geun wondered if it was memory speaking to him. Then he saw a thin, dirt-caked figure wearily trudging towards the wall. Some of the soldiers nocked arrows to strings but Commander Rii ordered them to hold. Mong-geun did not wait for the commander’s approval. He ran down to the eastern gate and ordered it opened at once. Moment’s later she stood before him, ragged, exhausted and filthy, but very much alive. Through sheer force of will Nim Mong-geun merely bowed to her.
“I am glad beyond words to see you safe your highness.”
“I’m glad to be safe.” Lee-hwa patted him on the shoulder.
Commander Rii came running with several soldiers in his wake and expression that could freeze water.
“Princess, thank goodness you’re safe but what in the name of the gods happened? How did you lose your horse?”
Mong-geun winced at the man’s tone, which went beyond what a man of his rank should say to a royal. If Lee-hwa was offended, she showed no sign.
“My bow was caught on a tree so I went to retrieve it.”
Rii Sung-jae’s eyes widened at this. So did the soldiers. So did Mong-geun’s.
“You wanted to retrieve a bow?” The commander said, a little stupidly.
“Yes. I could hardly leave it for the Wei to find.”
Now Mong-geun felt as slow-witted as the rest.
“Princess, a mere bow is hardly worth-“
“Oh! No, I don’t mean like it was valuable. Now if it had been Father’s or maybe my uncle’s bow I would have left it for the Wei.”
“You would have. . . “ Commander Rii faltered. Simply repeating what she said would make him look foolish.
“Think about it. They have the family crest on their bows, just as mine does.” Lee-hwa continued, indicating the character that represented her family name, artfully carved into the bow’s belly. “And Father and Uncle’s bows are much stronger than mine. If the Wei captured one of those they would think, ‘what a fearsome warrior the owner must be.’ But mine? They would say, ‘here is woman’s bow. A feeble pathetic weapon.’ Then they would laugh and think we are all weaklings. And that would be intolerable.”
She said this matter-of-factly, as if the answer were perfectly reasonable. And she smiled at them, as if the matter were of little consequence. Mong-geun stared at his charge, unable to believe what he was hearing. Then one of the soldiers coughed. Another made a strangled noise of his own. Before long most of the men in earshot were laughing.
Robert Webb © 2015