Heart of Flowers Sword of Thorns

| Spirit of a Teacher, Sword of a General (Part I)

”With every day that moves me closer to deaths 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 accounted for a life lived twice. ” The Recount of the Winter War of General Kim Min-Jun, Devoted ”Bone ” of the Great Silla Kingdom.

~~~

The silence of winter reigned over the shabby village with its thatched huts. Only the shrine caught the eye, with icicles draping the wide eves like a palatial shelter for the spirits of the woods. Chimney smoke slowly danced towards the sky. All else was frozen in silence. Packed tightly together, the shepherds settlement stood guard on the edge of an ancient forest.

But from the huts, vigilant eyes stood guard as well.

Beyond the village, the woodlands undulated together with the hills, interlocking their shoulders along the western border. The sky had sifted its white flakes, one by one to the ground, obscuring the autumnal colours under a monotone blanket. On top of it, everything was preserved in stillness.

There was no movement. No sound. Death was walking in the forest.

Kim Min-Juns topknot blended into the white surroundings. The cold was all he could smell in the crisp air. His frosted eyelashes twitched as he blinked. At least he was not turned into an ice statue. Shifting in place, he winced and wished he was. Sitting undercover for so long sent needles through his muscles. To unstiffen his hand, he flexed his fingers, tracing the ornate rooster embedded in his armour. Bad choice. Touching the frozen metal almost left his skin glued in place.

”Not even the rats would dare to show their whiskers in this weather. Hmph! And they call this the Month of the Rat, ” he whispered.

The soldier sitting close turned his attention to him, but Min-Jun shook his head as if saying it was nothing of importance. He remained to stare at his frost-kissed hand that waged war, setting brother against brother. Not from the cold, his hand began to shake.

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 they have not blanched forest spirits statues.

Standing with him were the brave men fighting to dissolve the Baekje border that kept the region divided. It was a godly effort for this was a tough land to cross and a tougher land to fight upon. Where it was not littered with forests and guarded by hills, the landscape gave way to narrow valleys. It was natures trap for all of them. The Silla armies and the Baekje egotistical king faced each other in battle wherever they found open terrain. But with walls of trees or slopes of hills surrounding them, they ended up like ants, crawling inside a porcelain cup. There was no easy way out. Only to fight and live, or to fight and die.

Meaningless Baekje and Silla deaths because even on the battleground, when they spoke they understood each other. When they prayed, they prayed to common ancestors. Sure, they skirmished across the ages, but even the best of brothers fight. If only Baekje would have joined their alliance, all this fighting would have been the stuff of which nightmares were made. All this fighting would have weighed less on Min-Jun if the rumours about his Second Brother Yu-Sin, colluding with the Baekje king, were untrue.

But fighting was Min-Juns duty, as a lord of these lands, a True Bone from the Kim clan. After so many years, fighting became his burden, or was it the weight of his armor on his ageing bones?

A thud came from behind. His old heart jumped but he remained put, only leaning forward, and squinting to see what the sound was all about. No other noise followed. It must have been a branch snapped from a tree, under the weight of snow. He exhaled for now and settled back in his spot when he noticed it.

One of his soldiers was standing upright, hyperventilating, and clutching his sword, ready to fight chimaeras hidden in thin air. His companions tried to pull him back into hiding in vain. The soldiers mind was lost as he anxiously watched the tree trunks and bushes for a sign it was time to attack. Until he met Min-Juns gaze.

The general locked eyes with him and gave a short nod, then motioned with his hand for him to sit. Like under a spell, the young man calmed down and went back into hiding. He must have been afraid, fatigued, and cold. They all were. Through mud, fire and ice, soldiers marched in the wake of his command without reproach, and they made him proud. But they were only humans.

A hushed voice came from behind, startling him. ”General Kim Min-Jun, Ive counted them. Fifty Baekje traitors, hiding like scared crows in the huts. ” His lieutenant knelt beside him with no sound. This was his way, to move with stealth and sneak up on anyone like a ghost on a moonless night.

”Good job, Lieutenant. Go reunite with your squad! ” The idleness Min-Jun dwelled in up until now was slowly shaping into a plan. He offered back a curt nod and prepared to signal the rest of his men to enter the village, almost grateful he would be able to set his body into motion again.

The lieutenant grabbed his forearm and would not let go. ”Not all the villagers have fled, General. And I am sorry to tell you, but I saw the Second Son of the Kim clan, your brother, entering a hut near the village shrine.

A punch in his gut would have been welcomed instead of hearing that the rumours were true. The lives of those without a caste who lived here, the shepherds, hunters and butchers, held as much value as the meat and goods they provided. Now, they equalled his brothers life. But they all held much value in his eyes. It was still blood. The ground was saturated with it. If he would put a sword through the soil, it would come oozing out. Hed seen it in his dreams.

Such is the way of life and war, Min-Jun settled the battle between his affections and his duty. He wore the title and the armor. It was up to him to not allow the Baekje to flee and regroup. Not when he and his small squadron had chased them from the battlefield up to the hills. Not when he should be the one to capture his foolish brother, alive or, may the gods forbid, dead. Every day at war became a sacrifice. And every sacrifice called for another. All in the name of honor and unity.

Min-Jun sighed out his remorse and 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 the Sillian troops reached the village, they dashed inside the first huts, pulling out the rebels, and clashing swords together. Their presence was felt, and the traitors came out of hiding to greet them with blood. A deathly rumble grew louder and louder and the innocents cry slowly took over the silence, foreshadowing doom.

Min-Jun detached from his vanguard and went to search for a familiar face. 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. He was approaching the shrine.

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 in front of him, was a younger version of his face. The same hard lines on the nose, the same light-brown hooded eyes and a recognizable voice that spoke out of decorum.

”Did you enjoy my hospitality, old one? Its about time we had a real sword fight. We had enough practice while growing up. ”

”Do you think of yourself as a wolf now, Second Brother Yu-Sin? ”

”I was only a lamb to you and our family. Its about time I am the wolf and you be my lamb. ” Yu-Sin threw his hand at him in an insulting manner and readied his sword.

That was the hand that used to hold his tunic wherever they went when they were young. That was the mouth that used to smile at him with missing teeth when growing up. Time turned everything sour.

”Daring and foul-mouthed, my young brother. Better for you if you had stayed home to learn how to address your elders. ” Min-Jun took better hold of his ring-pommel blade and slid it out of its sheath with a soft metallic hiss. It felt heavier than before. ”Run back home, little lamb! ” Targeting his brother turned enemy, he came at him running, forcing him onto the village green.

Yu-Sin did not back down from the fight as Min-Jun had hoped. Instead, he jumped back or lunged in swift counterattacks fuelled by never-ending stamina. His brothers youth and vivacity were on par with his skill and experience.

”We should fight together, not each other, little brother, ” Min-Jun said, panting and pushing aside an attack.

”Feeling a little tired, old one? Or has your skill lessened since you began tutoring children? ” Yu-Sin taunted before setting loose a flurry of strikes.

Min-Jun parried or retaliated, a little slower every time. The armour was weighing him down. He was tired, from fighting and of fighting. His wrists hurt, even more so from the cold. His blood coursed backwards through his veins for having raised his sword on a brother.

Finding a break through the blur of deadly edges coming at him, Min-Jun smacked Yu-Sin against the face and pushed him backwards with a leg kick. It gave him a respite to catch his breath and a chance to check his surroundings. In their deadly frolic, they had entered the courtyard of one of the homes that stood solitary, with a gaping mouth instead of a door.

”I am tired of your foolishness. ” Min-Jun pointed his sword at Yu-Sin. ”You were meant to honour our family, not betray us ”, and he began retreating to the wooden frame entrance of the hut, leading him into believing he felt trapped.

”What family? ” Yu-Sin shouted back, not minding the blood trickling from his nose. ”I grew old standing in your shadow. Nothing I did ever pleased our esteemed clan council. I was nothing to them next to the great Min-Jun. ” He closed the distance between them, the chance of victory glimpsed in his eyes.

Min-Jun continued to back away slowly. ”Oh, I remembered you were always hot-tempered, always going against the righteous way. But you are a Silla True Bone. Why go against your king? ” he stopped when the hardwood of the door frame pressed against his armour.

”I go where I am appreciated. Why submit to our king? He let you play the school teacher when you
e a general. He lost his firm hand and allied himself with the Tang Empire to get his hands on Baekje. The Tang will be our doom, Brother, you will see. Now put your blade down. ” Without breaking a sweat, Yu-Sin approached, sealing Min-Jun in place with the tip of his sword.

Drawing fast breaths, Min-Jun aligned his blade close to his eyes, ”you fool. What about Baekje calling on the Nihon for help? Don you see? With the Tang in the North and the Nihon lurking across the South Sea, now is the time for this region to come together as one country, as one family. You are doing the opposite. ”

Yu-Sin narrowed his gaze and allowed his actions to speak. He raised his strong arm high, stretching for the sky, casting a shadow over his brothers face. Min-Juns stomach clenched and sorrow flooded his face. His brother had no second thoughts about claiming his life.

In the blink of an eye, Yu-Sins sword came swishing through the air toward his brother. Min-Jun moved out of its way, leaving the hilt stuck in the frame and Yu-Sins eyes agape, as he pulled desperately to free it.

With grace unmatched and speed unseen even for his old muscles, Min-Jun danced behind a desperate Yu-Sin and put their familys ancestral Hwandudaedo against his neck. ”On a lamb, a wolfs clothes are easy to put on and easier to take off. Get inside, ” and he pushed his brother through the huts open door, making him stumble and fall against the rear wall.

A piercing cry startled them both. Only now did Min-Jun realize that next to Yu-Sin, leaning against the furs on the wooden planks, sat a woman frozen in death, with her eyes and mouth open. Close to her chest, something made a noise and stirred under the swaddle blanket. Keeping his brother under the tip of his sword, Min-Jun came to lift it.

The chubby strained face of a baby stared back from underneath, its crying intensifying in between gnawing hungrily on the tiny wooden figure of a bear. A spear was buried in the womans back. A few inches more and that spear would have sent the child on a never-ending journey, alongside his mother. Her fingers, now rigid with death, still clasped his delicate frame tightly, either hoping she would keep him safe with her own body or simply as the last goodbye she could offer. Perhaps it was both.

Yu-Sin wiped his bloodied nose and grinned. ”Would you look at that? I will have some company for the afterlife. You can help any orphans; you know the military protocol. You have two executions on your hands, First Brother. ”

”Silence, ” Min-Jun ordered, as he tried to think, his sense of purpose muddled.

”You are right. The babe is too young, a lesser thing. It still has one foot in the living world and another in the spirit realm. It would not be an execution if you send him back into deaths arms. Or would you leave it to fate? Me, on the other hand – ”

”Silence, I said! ” Min-Jun shouted back, unsettled from having another heavy decision on his shoulders. He bowed his head, considering whether to smother the infant now or walk away, abandoning him to divine will. However, something made him take another look at the crying man-cub, who did not appear to have more than five or six months of life.

The babys wailing lent itself to the horrendous symphony of grunts and metal notched on metal coming from outside. But all General Min-Jun could hear was its cries.

Memories of his daughter inundated him. The rocking motion, the lullabies he used to sing, the weight of her tiny frame in his arms as he tried to calm her down, the smell of her dark hair that made his heart swell, all re-emerged out of nowhere. If he closed his eyes, he could have sworn this baby was his daughter. His daughter, who he had lost so early on. The longing for those plump cheeks he had ardently kissed moved him closer in an attempt to soothe his shattered heart. But he found himself pinned down by strange colored baby eyes that brought visions of a crystal-clear mountain lake, and a name spurred in the generals mind: Soo-Ah, meaning beautiful water.

Not holding his tongue anymore, Yu-Sin began to laugh ironically, ”Oh, I have seen this look on your face before, First Brother. ”

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