From Teacher to General - Part 1
"With every day that moves me closer to death's final embrace, with every dent in my armour, and after all the wars I was a witness and an executioner for, I can vouch for one thing; in the times when kings and emperors ruled over lands scorched by wars, the fleeting moments of peace compelled my people to enjoy life twice as much. May the Gods forgive me for I have waged war when I longed for peace." General Min-Jun, Devoted "Bone" of the Great Silla Kingdom.
The silence of winter loomed over the pale rooftops of the shacks. If the dancing columns of smoke had made sounds as they twisted upwards, their music would have brought life to this lazy scenery. Packed tightly together, the shepherds' village stood guard on the edge of an ancient forest.
The woodlands undulated together with the hills as they interlocked their shoulders as far as the eyes could see. All of the trees were white, hiding their skinny branches under a generous coat of snow. The sky had sifted its white flakes, one by one to, the ground, obscuring the vivid autumnal colours under a monotone blanket.
Everything around was preserved in stillness. No movements. No sounds. Death was walking in the forest.
Min-Jun's topknot blended into the white surroundings. He felt the need to blink to make sure he was not turned into an icy human statue. The frost was all he could smell in the crisp air. Sitting undercover for so long sent needles through his muscles. To keep the frostbite away and unstiffen his hand he traced the tip of his fingers across the ornate rooster embedded on his chest armour. Touching the frozen metal almost left his skin glued in place. The leather tunic he wore underneath was equally frozen from all the waiting he had done in the cold. And he needed to wait a little while longer.
Looking left and right, his soldiers kept as still as he did, hiding behind the trees and the snow-coated rocks. Vapours coming out of their mouths proved that they were not yet frozen to death. Only the blood under their skin ran hot in anticipation.
"General, I've counted them. Fifty, hiding like scared crows in the huts," His lieutenant startled him. The man's hushed voice as he knelt beside him with no sound was the only thing he heard in a long while. This was his soldier's way, to move with stealth and sneak up on anyone like a ghost on a moonless night. Min-Jun could swear he left no footprints in the snow.
He gave a curt nod, "Good job, Lieutenant. Go reunite with your squad!" and prepared to signal the men to advance, almost grateful he would be able to set his body into motion again.
The lieutenant grabbed his forearm to stop him mid-way. "They know we are coming."
He took a couple of moments to gulp down his apprehension before continuing, "Not all the villagers have fled to safety, General. I fear we'll see innocent bloodshed.''
Min-Jun frowned; this was unfortunate, but he could not let his enemies go. Not when he and his small task force had chased them from the battlefield up to the hills. Not when they were one step closer to pushing the invaders away from his beloved Silla lands. Every day at war became a sacrifice. And every sacrifice called for another.
He sighed out his remorse then gave his signal, leading his men out from the cover of the trees and rocks and into crawling, crouching, then sneaking. The tension was like smoke in his mouth.
As soon as they entered the village, they dashed inside every hut they could reach, pulling out their enemies, clashing swords together. Their presence was felt all around the shacks and the assailants came out to greet them with blood. A deathly rumble from their skirmish and the innocents' cry slowly took over the silence, foreshadowing doom.
Min-Jun detached from his vanguard and went to check the areas ahead. He made his way through the tight gap between several shacks. The jingle of his plate armor and the crunch of his footsteps in the snow replaced the clash of the battle behind him. His heart pounded from the adrenaline, making it hard to control his panting. As soon as he stepped out into a clearing the glint of a menacing sword came at him faster than he could blink. His instincts activated quickly enough for him to jump back into the safety of the narrow alley, saving his big nose from a sudden encounter with a sharp edge.
Blocking the exit, the young face of an enemy fighter tried to look defiant, but the coal-like narrow eyes betrayed the boy's despair.
"Do you think yourself a wolf, little lamb?" The general spoke loud enough for his opponent to hear but all he got in return were two harshly spoken strange words. In all of his experience fighting the boy's kinsmen he knew by now they were meant as an insult. "Daring and foul-mouthed. Better for you if you had stayed home to learn how to address your elders. Run back home, little lamb!"
The old general pulled his ring-pommel blade back toward his upper chest, targeting his enemy. He came out running to force him into the open, where he had space for a head-on confrontation.
The lad did not back down from the fight, nor did he show any intention to run. His youth and vivacity were on par with the general's skill and experience. The sharp Dao came hard from left or right, making Min-Jun retaliate or dodge with each attack, a little slower every time. But he would not let his age have the final word. Skillfully retreating, he lured the young soldier closer to the wooden frame entrance of one of the huts.
The boy raised his strong arm high, stretching for the sky, casting a shadow over Min-Jun's face. In the blink of an eye, the enemy's single edge sword came swishing through the air towards his head. He quickly moved out of its way, leaving the blade stuck in the frame and the young soldier's eyes agape, pulling desperately to free it.
Min-Jun danced with grace behind the soldier and, holding his head in place, in a swift move he slid his ancestral hwandudaedo against the boy's neck, whispering into his ear, "Forgive me, little lamb..." Sorrowful words that the foreign young man could not understand, nor did they matter to him anymore.
He took a couple of steps back, moving away from the young soldier's body that was writhing on the ground. Burgundy blood smudged the hilt and came trickling down, staining the general's hand and his conscience. Watching the consequences of his actions, Min-Jun allowed the gruesome image to sink in. When he turned away to get back into fighting, he found his towering figure wobbling through the air from a missed step and landing hard on the frozen ground.
The impact resonated through his bones as he cursed at whatever was the reason for his fall. His mouth snapped shut when his eyes met the lifeless peasant. He had no time to waste mourning for his fellow countryman if he wanted to spare others the same fate.
The fighting continued until the enemies' number was reduced to but a few, and they surrendered their lives to captivity and slavery.
Nightfall sneaked in, aiming to push the day, with all the horrors it bore witness to, into oblivion.
Min-Jun's troops set up camp in the village and settled in for the night, waiting for the sun to come up again and allow for them to gather and count the dead. Unfortunately, no villagers came out alive from their homes.
A couple of specks of light amber tones pierced through the darkness. Finding a fleeting refuge from the cold, the soldiers huddled together around the fires. Warming up their stiff hands and feet, they reached for the flames as if they were more afraid of the frosty bite of winter than a stinging burn. Damp wood snapped and crackled as ambient noise, underlying the uneven tone of their voices.
The village green, now covered in white snow and sullied with patches of mud and blood, became their spot for the night camp. Min-Jun's men sat in circles in front of what used to be the blacksmith's workshop. His forge, as cold as the village he had left behind. The crude plank and barrel seesaw children used to play with, as still as the starless night.
To hide their tiredness and fright the soldiers shared drinks, jokes and tales of bravery, their faces gleaming in the faint light. Some yawned, some remained silent, many talked and forced themselves to laugh. Several men were noisier than the rest.
One of them stood up, with a flask in his hand and a weird smug look on his adolescent face. "I am telling you, my comrades, the only reason I am grateful to have lived through today is to be able to fight tomorrow." Struggling to brave out the events of the day, he made sure not to turn his gaze towards the pitch blackness surrounding them, knowing too well the number of lifeless bodies it hid away.
"You little chicken. Look at you with your big words. Weren't you the one I caught spilling his guts just before our general signalled to attack?" a man in his prime, from across the firepit mocked him as a challenge. The soldiers' wide chests moved up and down from laughter at the cutting remark.
"Aargh, let him be. Didn't you see how proud he was of his new shiny armour? Let the boy live for the fighting if it's keeping him alive." The senior of the bunch spoke in defence of his younger comrade, giving an encouraging pat over the boy firm buttocks.
General Min-Jun sat quietly, mingling and observing his men, as he often did. The boy's enthusiastic declaration and the light approach his men displayed made him dig his fingers in the snow. His stare aimlessly followed the amber ashes, dancing upward through the air and vanishing under the inky canvas of the sky.
His voice boomed out over the others', addressing every soul in sight. "Tales of bravery and valour, the patriotism you should feel in your hearts, the shine of your weapons and armour in the sun – those are fantasies and lies, I tell you. Lies meant to lure all you men into the army. Never expect glory; all you get is gore."
A sharp sword, a strong arm and a good plan were not the only devices to win a war.
Min-Jun got up and looked around, facing each of his men, not shying away from their eyes. "A warrior with a broken spirit can no longer call himself a man, let alone a soldier. Your clear heads and steady hands are all our people can count on."
He could not abstain from warning them about how all their courage and pride would scatter with the first blow of the enemy's sword, and wither with the first comrade they saw dying. The higher their expectations, the harder they fell in despair, as he had seen throughout his long career. He was a general but marshalling his troops was only part of the responsibilities he took on his shoulders.
Min-Jun's sombre comment left every soldier within ears' reach holding their tongues. The silence was overbearing as he bid his men a good night and headed for the sentries' post to make sure they had clear instructions.
The boastful young soldier from earlier sat down befuddled and leaned over to the man who encouraged him. "That speech was depressing. What is wrong with our general? I thought he was supposed to be the fiercest of them all."
"Aargh, life in the big city must have softened him up. Some say he got into tutoring younglings before the war."
"Teaching?" the young one replied, surprised. "But he is a True Bone, from a long line of generals. And famous ones at that. He must serve in the military until his death. How could he have been a teacher when he was a general?"
The older soldier shrugged his shoulders, not having an answer for this mystery, and grabbed the flask to take a sip.