The people of Joseon had next to no idea of the extent to the commitment the Nightsmen presented. Chen wondered sometimes, if they did in fact know, would they treat them like princes? He doubted that, it was prominently obvious that whether they were for the crown or not, most held a dislike for the exiled prince of Joseon and his band of followers.
It was becoming obvious to Chen, that even the villagers and their chiefs were not all that trusting of their powers. Chen wasn’t trusting of their loyalty.
On the way back to the boggy farmlands, he rode alone. Although the man who had collected him was nice enough, Chen was sure that it was more pretence than anything else. It was like the world and society Chen was trying to build had begun to resist, and now the ropes and chains holding it securely together were snapping. It wasn’t all that stable to begin with.
He hadn’t achieved anything, Chen realised, as of yet. A pang of guilt did strike his body; he had wandered the borders and farmlands of Joseon through the day and protected during the night for what seemed like decades, along with his men it felt like time wasted and goals unachieved. A life given up for not much more than a nod of the head in unaired gratitude.
Chen hadn’t left the palace for that. He wasn’t about to sit back any longer and let things take its course.
First step, no-man’s land in the north.
Chen had chosen two of his most trusted me, had borrowed horses without permission from the local farm house, and rode away as quickly as they could.
The small hand drawn map with Chen was the only map Chen had ever had and relied on - it hadn’t yet led him down a wrong path. It was now that Chen would rely on it to deliver him to the no man’s land - a place he’d yet to venture. He’d travelled all over Joseon, he’d even went into Xiching on one occasion, but he hadn’t dared go into the no-man’s land in fear that he might be attacked and nothing would be done about it. In the no man’s land there was no law, there was no ruler. Free to all and subject to nothing.
The people who chose to live there were rumoured to be sadistic outlaws, living a life the king cared not to be a part of. Hence they were left to do as they please, as long as no trouble was caused. They lived without the support those living within the region would receive, and they were restricted to no man’s land where they wouldn’t mix with the compliant citizens of the regional divide.
The sun above Chen and his men was beginning to set; it would be dark soon and Chen was sure the men would demand camp - although Chen and his men working through the night, he had woken them early to begin the journey. They’d become tired quickly. Chen, though, hadn’t slept properly for the past day and a half - this was no time to sleep when he had to quickly dissolve the Taoshi messengers and whatever knowledge they knew before it spread. Whatever plans they hoped to receive support on.
If their plan was to make any fraction of sense, their first step would be to establish a divide in Joseon, find the supporters and the enemy, gather some soldiers, and invade Joseon capital and slaughter the king and his court. But, as the village lord had said, it was more than a mere ‘kill-the-king’ campaign. The Taoshi messengers and traitors wanted to rid the lands of superiors, and that meant Chen would have to die in order for that goal to be achieved, despite battling with the same edge of the sword.
Chen wondered if he’d need to keep his true identity a secret upon arrival. The Taoshi rebels were against the divide just like Chen, but they hated the superiors.
Chen clenched his hands around the reigns. He was superior by blood but not in his mind or heart. He could understand, though, the hate against them.
He hadn’t chosen to be this way, his great grandfather had made that sacrifice six generations ago along with the grandfathers of the six regions of Gauna. Together to the spellbinder in the mountains, she promised Gauna a future without their dictatorship and smothering rule, and instead gave them powers that could defeat their dictator. When the time came that they overthrow the ruler, they couldn’t decide upon a king and then divided Gauna into six regions and named after their family names. Then, after years of great tension and growing hatred between rulers, it became yet another smother and dictatorship rule duplicated by six under six different pressures. Back to square one, and now Chen and everyone after him would be victim to the supposed gifts and curses gave to them long before.
Maybe the spellbinder of the mountains knew this all along, she tricked the founders of Gauna, and lay plan for a seemingly perfect way of life to crumble. It was a likely theory, Chen thought, considering how many corrupt beings existed in Gauna.
Was there nobody he could trust?
“Chen, shall we be upon the no man’s land by nightfall?” Shinwoo asks from his left.
Chen looks away from his horse and looks Shinwoo in the eye; his face was old, crow’s feet by the corners of his eyes and a pasty skin tone that suggested he was ill. Despite being nearly incapable of holding a sword, Shinwoo was a nice man, and a man Chen had known for most of his life as a Nightsmen. “I wouldn’t think so, Shinwoo. We’ll rest before arriving in the morrow’s afternoon.” He was the father Chen should have had as a child, he was the type of man who guided Chen through the toughest of days. Shinwoo was a reason for Chen to live.
“What is it we have planned upon our arrival? No man will be there to receive us, so how shall we go about finding the messenger?”
Chen hadn’t thought about it all that much; thinking ahead had a tendency to worry him. “We’ll deal with that when we arrive.”
As a silence descends, only the loud clatter of the horse’s feet against the ground is heard. From Chen’s right he hears the third and final man he’d brought sigh. “Will we have to put up a fight?”
Chen had thought that they would, they would most probably have to put up a fight if they found out Chen’s identity, or the fact they were even associated with the Nightsmen, for although they fought with the same side of the sword apparently Chen was not good enough to be on that side. Hence all his men now at risk because of the grudge held against a title given to Chen and his family as the Superiors.
The superiors were all corrupt but himself, couldn’t they see he wasn’t fighting against, but fighting with the people?
Chen could feel his power drain from his body and then eventually he was left feeling like a skeleton encased in flesh - it was a feeling Chen had felt time after time, a feeling he dreaded but had almost become a part of him for doing what he felt right.
Weakness. Hopelessness. Hatred. Death.
They’d entered no-mans-land long ago, but no man in sight. Long had they passed the villages and now according to the map they were just though the borders.
Chen had wondered that maybe they reside as far away from the border as possible, to reduce the conflict between the people so both couldn’t be seen from the other side.
Shinwoo had been growing concerning fatigued over the past hours and as the men drew closer the their destination, Chen hoped he would pull through for that little while longer - surely someone would reside in the no-mans with a fraction of herbal and medical knowledge.
“Over there, a person!”
A groan emits from Shinwoo’s mouth as he slumps on his horse at the news of people finally coming into sight. “Hold on, Shinwoo,” Chen instructs, but if Shinwoo had it in his to hold on, he would. By the looks of things, he didn’t.
He needed a doctor, and quick.
“Hey!” The other man shouts into the distance.
“Chae, we don’t know who they are or what side they’re on. We can’t draw attention so quickly,” Chen tries to explain, while dragging his horse closer to Shinwoo’s so they could ride side by side and ensure Shinwoo wouldn’t fall beneath the horse’s feet.
“He’s sick, Chen. He needs a doctor before it’s too late. Shinwoo’s an old man,” Chae argues. An old man who’d lived a life in the rough without as much as a luxury for the most part of his senior life.
Chen had no doubt that they’d be able to take on a group of Taoshi men if they did so happen to seek the slaughter of the Nightsmen, if that situation did arise, but for now they could afford to treat Shinwoo. “Fine, ride ahead and find a settlement. Try and find someone with the ability to help him,” Chen agrees, and not seconds later does Chae shoot off into the distance on his brown horse, throwing dry dusty dirt into the air and their faces.
Chen looks down at the man who was more than a father to him, and adjusted his body on the horse. “Stupid man, why did ever want to come on a long journey such as this?” Chen asks without expecting a reply. Not that Chen wasn’t appreciative of his companionship on all his outings, it was nice to have Shinwoo with him, but Chen was growing worried.
With a wheezy voice, causing Chen to strain his ears, he hears, “I couldn’t let you ride into danger alone.” followed by a coughing fit that causes him to tilt slowly off his horse. Chen scrambles to steady Shinwoo as a deadly fear cascades over Chen’s chest.
In the distance Chen spots Chae’s horse standing stationary while the rider waves frantically. Chae begins to make his way towards them at twice the speed they were approaching. Yelling, nearly having reached them, Chae says, “I’ve found a village, just over there. We can ask for assistance upon arrival. Tell them we’ve sought the no-mans for new life.”
“Then go look for someone, god dammit, Chae. Don’t come back here just to tell us you’ve possibly found a place filled with the enemy!”
Shinwoo coughs fiercely. “Don’t fight,” he forces out.
Chen wouldn’t go against his words and instead signalled with heavy looks for Chae to ride off again and start looking for a doctor.
Drawing closer to the place, they found the beginnings of a village, and sure enough roughed up looking village people shocked to see a foreign face.
They stared up at their raised figures on their tall horses, pausing whatever it was they were doing to cast a stare that told Chen he was not welcome. They did not know who he was or what he wanted, but they did not want him here.
Chae arrived on scene, off his horse and walking casually through the cramped layout of the streets and trading stalls of the far no-mans. “Come, come quick,” he shouts, beckoning us his way.
Not giving a glance to any man in the street, Chen jumps easily from his horse landing firmly on both feet and lifts Shinwoo from the other horses back. Chen makes a grab for Shinwoo’s arm and hauls it over his shoulder to assist him in the direction of Chae.
Moving through the backstreets, Chae leads them through a dim doorway into a dimly lit shack of a home.
“What is this?” Chen asks.
Chae twists his head to look at Chen and Shinwoo. “Lay him down there,” Chae says, pointing to the hay in the corner of the dirty room.
“This isn’t a medical office, is it?” Almost becoming frantic for help, he knew Shinwoo wouldn’t live forever, but Chen held onto the prayers that Shinwoo would last today and then pass peacefully in a region he felt most comfortable among the men he most adored. If he died here, Chen wouldn’t be able to bring back the body.
“There is no medical office,” Chae responds as a man moves from the darkness of the corner of the room and stands in the stream of light falling through the tiny window frame. “He claims to be an herbalist, he treats those in the villages with ailments.”
Chen turns to the man, old and haggard and in not much of a better condition than Shinwoo, but at least he could stand on his two feet. A grey beard that grew past his chin and traditional robes that represented no region, and instead woven with various patterns and colours like the free man he was. “Who are you?” the man asks the three men within his house.
“We seek a new life in the no-mans, this is my father. Please treat him,” Chen begs, a nervous sweat developing under his shaggy hair over his forehead.
The old man grumbles before kneeling down by the hay and lighting a candle that Chen couldn’t have seen before through the darkness. “My apprentice will be back soon with fresh plants we can use in his treatment, for now we must make him comfortable.”
Chen and Chae both nod their heads in understanding.
“I’m going back to village front to move our horses closer, I’ll be back soon,” he explains as he opens the wooden door, filling the room with fresh morning glow. For the first time, Chen sees the healers face.
Chae soon leaves and Chen falls back against the wall and rests his eyes.
“Young men like yourself shouldn’t be risking your lives in the no-mans like this,” the old man rasps. Chen opens his eyes to see his shadow moving through the darkness. Instead of a thought-out reply, Chen lays silent for explanation. “The Joseon region is missing their king; what has brought you so urgently to a place like this?”
At that second, Chen knew. The king of the people, the seventh king of Gauna. He knew the stories and he knew Chen was their subject. “Who are you?” Chen cautiously asks.
“An old man who has travelled long enough to know a Nightsmen and his uniform when he sees it,” he replies.
Chen stands up and staggers into the strip of lights and looks down on himself. His red and black bandana, tied onto the handle of his sword temporarily, was that giveaway.
Chae was wearing the bandana around his neck.
Chen draws his sword from the sheath on his belt, awakening Shinwoo. “Put your sword away, boy, no conflict is ever solved by the loss of more lives.” ever the wise one, Chen thought, but he couldn’t stand back and perhaps witness the slaughter of a good Nightsmen.
“Stay put, I’ll be back.” Then Chen is gone, out the door and into the backstreets he was sure he’d never find the way out of. Then, shouts and screams rise up into the muggy air and Chen is put into fight mode.
His internal operating system switches from calm to danger, and then he’s off. Like a lightning bolt bouncing around inside, the instinct of Joseon pushes him into the forefront. The curse given by the Spellbinder; the ability of battle, and enhanced healing. Written deep into his genetic code, he was out there, with his sword firmly by his side.
Knocking a young woman over while running, he pays little attention and instead flees the scene with only so much as a look at the petite woman’s figure as she looks over the spilled contents of her basket.
Breaking out into the main street, he sees the commotion.
“Chen, turn back, grab Shinwoo!” He hears Chae, but he can’t see him.
Men, suited up with weapons and ill-fitting protective armour consisting no more than a thick leather vest, ran around the streets as the other innocent inhabitants pushed themselves into the smallest of spaces away from the fighting.
“A Nightsmen!” they’d yell, and then Chen knew they were in trouble. Amongst the chaos, Chen could see Chae, with blood seeping slightly from his side and limping as he fought off the enemy.
They hadn’t noticed him. Yet.
Chen was battling internally. While internally, he was being prodded to step forward and slit the throats of each and every one of them, another more sensible part was willing to stand back and watch for a few minutes.
They dare harm a Nightsmen, they pay the consequences.
As Chen was beginning to see all red, it suddenly disappears as on one corner of the street, a familiar figure appeared, bearing a sword and nothing more.
“You’ll release that boy!” Shinwoo yells into the air as he steps into the forefront bravely and waves his sword aimlessly.
No words are listened to as the males of the villages step in with their own weapons and begin their approach against Shinwoo.
Chen couldn’t let Shinwoo see any harm. Taking a step forward, he’s promptly and unexpectedly pulled backwards onto the ground.
A hand clamping firmly over his mouth, he still easily flips the two of them over only to find the woman he’s knocked over in the minutes before.
With large scared eyes, she pleads, “don’t harm me.”
“Never sneak up on a man preparing to attack,” he venomously snarls, ready to forget the incident and jump right to Shinwoo’s side.
The surprisingly strong hand of the girl reaches up and pulls Chen back down again. “No, you mustn’t unless you are to die as well.” The young woman swipes her waved black hair from her face as she pleads and gradually tries to sit up. “They’ve made their decisions. You must go. Now.”
“Who the hell are you to tell me what I will and will not do?” he yells, only to be met with a scream of terror from the main body of action.
Turning around, only to see Shinwoo approached the rear of Chae battling a fairly skilled swordsman and several other men.
Shinwoo quickly dives in between Chae and the man, and grabs both his wrists. The swordsman flips the weak Shinwoo and his sword falls over Shinwoo’s neck and with a single slit Shinwoo could be dead.
Chen taken in a deep breath as he painfully rises to his feet ready to push Shinwoo from the man. Instead, he’s too late.
Shinwoo presses his back firmly into the man and raises his large sword into the air, plunging it through himself and the skilled swordsman behind him. His face contorts into pain laced with determination as he pushes it through himself that little bit further, fearlessly, protecting his brothers from harm with his life. Bravery.
Chae drops his sword and falls to his side, and Chen only wishes he could do the same. Instead, Chen cowardly sits back.
Chae removes the sword from the two men and drag Shinwoo away from the enemy. Chen can feel his eyes water, the pain of watching a person so dear fall so easily catching his breath. This wasn’t was life was supposed to be like.
He wished he could die with Shinwoo, die with the man who felt like his father and then live in the heavens together hunting in the forests and sitting by Chen’s lake. Living a life they both desired with no rule and no people to oppose their idealistic.
Maybe the herbalist could heal him, Chen thought, but then again, the herbalist was no skilled doctor.
Chen, too lost in the shock, hadn’t seen the other villager approach behind Chae, and then unexpectedly, Chae’s body becomes rigid and his eyes bulge as blood begins to seep from the corners of his mouth.
Shocked into silence, Chen only watches. Numb but in a paralysing pain.
As Chae’s body falls on top of Shinwoo’s, the middle aged man who stood behind him watched emotionlessly bearing a spear covered in Chae’s blood.
Chen only just feels small hands tugging at his clothing, as he slowly shifts about on the dirty ground. “You need to leave, now!”
But Chen wouldn’t leave - not when both of his closest men were lying on the ground merely meters in front of him in a territory they were not welcome among people who wanted nothing more than their deaths. They deserves to lay at home among friends and family where a farewell would be given with a sufficient amount of respect.
The puddle of water around his feet was freezing over and the blood in his heart stopped cold. The anger that had thawed him of his rigid and emotionless state was now overridden and now he was back to how he was before; cold, separated, unwilling. It was a repeat cycle that he’d never gained control over.
Although Chen had never experienced love through the curse of Joseon that ran through his veins, he was sure what he felt for Shinwoo and Chae was as close as he’d ever get to it. To have lost it…
“Bring the traitor!” A man standing over Shinwoo and Chae’s body yells to no one in particular, and Chen hears the small woman gasp by his side when the herbalist from the small little shack is shoved mercilessly into the centre.
Like a ring of spectators, the villagers viewed it like a daily happening; nothing new, nothing unusual, something to spice up their day. It made Chen sick.
“No,” Chen hears the woman whisper. “No, no, no.”
Did she know him?
“You snuck these men into the village and were treating them of their illnesses. What do you have to say?” the pathetic vile man wailed, like a vulture he fed on a fear he rarely provoked.
“I had not realised whom they were until it was too late,” the herbalist explains, face nearly buried in the dirt as he remains in a formal bowing position on his hands and knees.
The cretin of a man comes over and abusively kicks his head into the solid dusty dirt. “You should be executed for your crimes, you and your family!” he snarls.
Chen turns to see the woman hiding between two old wicker baskets and retreats further by her side. “Someone stop him,” she quietly whispers.
But it was anger he felt. She was obviously close to the man, and she wanted to help him yet she’d tried to stop him helping his brothers, who now had breathed their last breath.
The man draws a small knife from his belt. Grabbing the old greying man by the chin, in one quick slit he’s dead, blood spraying onto the ground and the shoes of the vile man above the now dead herbalist.
“The people are warned; anyone found to be harbouring Chen Joseon or the Nightsmen will be executed as well as their family.” So he was smart enough to gather Chen wouldn’t have let his men come without him. “Bring me the herbalist’s family as well as his apprentice. Prepare the posts!”
The execution posts. It was a horrible form of execution that only the evillest of lords had used on their villagers. This village didn’t even have an official lord, yet executions were still enforced? These were no free men.
“I have to go,” the woman whispers as she rises and begins to back away. Chen takes a step forward so she wouldn’t get away as easily.
“Who are you?” he asks. Although she stupidly stopped a Joseon from defending his men, she also saved Chen from his own stupidity where he fought with his hands first rather than his head.
“Saeji. I need to go.”
Chen was much stronger, and easily managed to hold her back from escaping with a single hand. He refused to let her leave so easily. “No,” is all he says as he then takes the lead and weaves away through the backstreets while holding Saeji’s upper arm.
Now he needed to escape the no-mans without his horse and with everyone looking out to catch him. “You need to get me out of here,” he demands as they arrive outside the herbalist’s home.
“I can’t stay here either,” she says, but he doesn’t ask why. Chen presumed she was somehow related to the old man.
Chen could hear the frustrated and angered voices coming closer, they were coming for them both - they couldn’t hang about.
“Come, quick,” Chen instructs. Not waiting for a reply, he carries on down the twisting paths regardless of whatever she might have had to say. No one was about in the back streets, most of which were probably still in the village centre enjoying the charade. It was sickening. Chen thought it was inhumane and disgusting.
Chen could hear things being knocked over, a disarray of the already trashed objects being thrown about in a frantic search to find them. Chen wouldn’t let them find him.
“We need to reach the village wall,” Saeji explains, exhausted and panting from behind him.
Chan hadn’t seen any walls upon entry to the village but he had no other word to take and instead decided to trust her. Slowing down, he let Saeji stand in front to guide the way, although never releasing her arm.
The streets become denser, and Chen struggles to pull his stocky frame through the streets, but Saeji seems to have almost found her way as she suddenly shakes Chen’s hand off and begins to pile up baskets and many other objects.
“What are you doing? There’s no way out.” Chen tries to look around for another escape, in case Saeji turned out to be somewhat insane and with no clue what she was doing.
“The wall,” she signals. “We need to climb over it.”
Chen didn’t see why they’d need to create a large step to stand on the get over when firstly he could quite easily lift her and secondly it would alert anyone who happened to find it that someone had tried to escape. Immediately there would be a search out with the boundary of the village.
The wall wasn’t high, only fractions taller than the height of Chen. Reaching his tired but strong hands out, he grasps Saeji by the hips and lifts her into the air. “Grab the wall, pull yourself over. I’ll be fine,” he persists as Saeji sits on the wall as if she sat on a horse.
The young brunette stares over the wall with a concerned look. “Are you sure?”
The search party were drawing closer, he could hear them close by. Kicking the useless things Saeji had been trying to build up out of the way as they provided nothing more than an obstacle, he taken several steps back. Saeji had not yet moved from the wall.
Preparing to run and jump at the wall, all the while wearing the heavy armour, Saeji asks, “What are you doing?” but a startled look casts her face as she sees his figure charging at her, giving her no time to move from the wall and onto the other side.
Pouncing at the wall, getting a good firm grasp of the top, he hauls himself over while pushing Saeji, giving her no sympathetic glances.
Grabbing Saeji as he begins to fall over the other side, Chen twists his legs scuffing the wall so he would take the impact. Landing on the other side on the dry but soft grass, Saeji’s light body lands on top of his own, barely making an impact.
“Now we run.”