“Where do you expect us to go on foot?” The young woman asks from behind, but Chen ploughed on. Lingering about only made then a sitting target that any decent marksmen could take out from a rooftop of a neighbouring village - still is the visible distance, he noted.
The tall grass reached their knees, a few odd trees were scattered beyond in the distance, but apart from that they were out in the open - they couldn’t risk being there for long.
His thoughts were robotic; this equals that and would hence cause this, eliminating A would prevent B, etcetera etcetera. He couldn’t think about himself or the black haired woman by his side for even a split second and instead focused on his tactics.
Chen realised that apart from the sword in his sheath he was more or less weapon less, and the woman by his side would weigh him down more than have any beneficial qualities. Without a horse they’d reach no farther than the next village by sundown, but Chen knew they couldn’t enter that village. The best they could do was seek cover in a forest as far away as possible.
“You- who are you?” Saeji shouts as loud as she can.
Chen immediately paused and turned around to grab hold of the annoying pest. He grabbed her upper arm and pulled her forward, using his other hand to cover her mouth.
She flailed, not going down without a fight. “I suggest you be quiet unless you want to end up like your friend in your village,” he whispered poisonously in her ear.
Chen could use her for answers, he could ask her himself about the Taoshi messengers but this was no time to stop and chat. He’d keep that in mind for later, along with the emotions pooling into a pit of his mind that he’d drown in at some other point.
If there was one thing drilled into Chen as a child that stuck out the most, was that the initial and most important task always took priority. A Joseon man could not linger on his emotions or the feelings of others. He was a man of war and a stone cold heart; Chen had no time for the affair of feelings.
Right now he had to seek himself shelter, and maybe the lady if she’d stick around enough for him to get that far.
He didn’t let go of her hands and instead looked her dead in the eye. The girl stared back with a determination Chen admitted was rare in any Joseon woman. It was the respect they were supposed to hold for a man; bow their heads and don’t stare. Say your sorrys, say your thanks. Admire and respect them on all occasions. It seems this woman lacked those ethics.
“My name is Chen,” he mumbled before throwing down her arm and watching her fall back into the long dried grass causing her cloak to blow up behind her.
He turned away, ready to walk on and leave the girl if she dared stay sitting. Instead, he hears her voice. “Chen Joseon?”
The Joseon in him had died years ago when he’d left his father in the midst of his teens.
“You’re who they were looking for, you’re who my master sacrificed himself for!” she began to get hysteric.
She was the apprentice herbalist, he had already gathered. They were after her now as well, he already knew. However Chen did not care as long as she kept up how she was acting in front of him. “You’ll be quiet or so help me,” he growls under his breath.
Chen was surprised she wasn’t breaking down any further, like how most women he’d seen had. It was a trait he detested in people. She lacked that.
“How can you be so heartless?” She gets to her feet and glares at him. “And your friends, they died too. Were they not close people in your heart?” she asks - not in a way that implied she was asking to help, no, she asked in a way that implied she was trying to cause trouble.
Chen could feel the fire licking at the bars in his chest, they whispered for a release but Chen tightened the lock. He couldn’t let the Joseon fire escape into his mind or may god have mercy on the woman in front of him. While the fire raged havoc in anger in his chest, his heart remained cold and frozen. He had no feelings for anything or anyone. While he felt safe amongst those he considered his friends they had no place in his heart - no one ever had.
Chen hated Saeji even more for asking such cruel questions. He desired nothing more than to feel the love of another person or to love a person like he’d seen others do, but by heritage he knew it to be impossible.
Taking a step forward, he laid his left hand on the handle of his sword peaking from his leather sheath. “How can you be so clueless?” he leans his neck down further to her stature and stares her in the eyes once more. “Now it’s a matter of life and death. We have to move quickly. Otherwise I might as well kill you right here on the spot if you’re not seeing this through until the end.”
She straightens her posture and grabs the edges of her cloak to hug her body. “I’m not the type to wait for an imminent death. I prefer to cheat fate.”
Chen felt a relation between the words of the girl and the spirit of his men. He wondered where she got her fire from, where she grew such a personality. Saeji didn’t look at all the type, but Chen rather not judge a person by their appearance. Instead, he’d be thankful he was stuck with a strong-headed, but stubborn girl who thankfully held the same determination as his men.
“A woman like yourself should watch out if you wish to spout your words so carelessly,” he murmurs as he turns his back to her and again sets of his way, this time hearing the girl audibly following behind him.
“Pig,” she muttered but he chose to ignore. Instead he set his sight on the village ahead and then to the left and right of it to find a way around the area without being seen.
Unfortunately, the village was on a hill, and hence anything in the distance worth seeing wouldn’t be visible until they were much closer.
“There’s a thick forest beyond that village, no one lives in it - there are various bad rumours on the place but I say that’s nonsense; I pick wild herbs by the edges on nice summer days,” she said, still too loud, Chen thought.
Chen paused to peer his surroundings. Wild flowers sprouted between the scraps of dried patchy tall grass but apart from that it was a barren wasteland. Chen couldn’t imagine anything remotely green or thick growing around these parts - like the forest Saeji claimed to know around here.
“Do you know a path that would lead us there but around the village?”
Saeji appears by his side and points into the distance. “If you go round the village outskirts-.”
“That’s too risky,” Chen interrupted.
“The villages in no-man aren’t exactly friendly with each other - especially the lords. You think I’d saunter through the village without thinking? They’d have me dead in seconds. Trust me, the outskirts work,” she reasons.
Chen tried his best to peer for a better view, but it seems his eyesight was worse than he previously thought. “They have no guards positioned on the perimeters?”
“None that I’ve seen,” Saeji explained.
Chen didn’t know if he could believe the girl or not - while she resembled his most trusted men, she could also have an ulterior motive. Did he really need her around anyway?
He could easily dispose of her - Chen could turn around as they walk and pulling his sword from his sheath she’d be dead in mere seconds - no time to retaliate. But she could hold information about the Taoshi messengers, information that Chen would otherwise not come across without someone from the inside of that village.
Chen watches her as they walked through the field. Her black hair catches in the wind and flows in the wind behind her with similar motions to her burgundy cloak. Chen concluded that she looked innocent enough.
But so had the villagers and lords back in Joseon, Chen thought, and look where that got me now.
She could quite easily be an enemy than she looked an ally.
“The flowers are beautiful. Master would have loved some crushed Maya pollen for his medicines,” she sighs tearfully as she leans down and skims her fingertips over the petals as she passed.
Chen chose to listen rather than reply and instead walked on silently, carefully multitasking the observation of the village as well as keeping a check on the girl.
Chen could now say that within seconds he could run and touch the walls of the closest building of the village. They were close and now had to keep their presence a secret until they’d passed safely.
“You’re being too suspicious,” she chides as she barges in front of his and walks along the perimeter as if she had no cares in the world. “If you want to die, continue as you’re doing.”
“You seem to be forgetting what uniform I wear,” he mumbles as they both ran past a gap in the houses, a route into the village. His metal armour clashed together, causing Saeji to turn back and cringed.
She looked him up and down critically, but Chen stood strong and looked down on the girl. “Move,” he told her.
She gave him a look that dared him to push her any further before she turned and began a bristle walk away from him.
He sighed. Any other woman would have been left by the dirt roads away back miles ago. If it weren’t for the possibility she might have held some worthy information, so she would have been gone.
Passing by the last sandy mud-hut like shack, Saeji points far in front of them. “There, you can see the peaks of a tree. It’s right there.”
“I thought you said it was close…” he mumbled, but she didn’t seem to hear him as she peacefully walked on past without a care in the world.
Who exactly is she?
Reaching the entrance of the forest, Chen stares up at the tall pine trees so dense that he was unsure he’d fit between the trunks to navigate his way through.
“This will do,” Chen grumbled. Although he wasn’t all that keen to sleep in enemy territory, he didn’t have the choice so long as he had no horse and no men.
Chen reached out and brushed away the thick branches that would surely snap if he forced them any further. He had to be careful to leave no trace of their presence.
“The stories aren’t nice, you know. The legends,” Saeji muttered, but Chen would ignore it. What legends he hadn’t heard of were obvious tales he could save for another day.
At the same time, however, looking into the dark looming presence of the forest, he would be sure to set camp near the edge. He knew straight away it would be more than easy to get lost within its labyrinth.
Chen let go of the branch as he passed it, springing back and would have hit Saeji if she were following behind. But she was not.
Looking back at her, Chen noted her weary expression. Growing increasingly frustrated, he snatched her hand and pulled her through the branched uncaringly.
She squeaked in surprise as the sharp pine needles grazed her skin through her conservative dark clothing. Casting her gaze up at the towering man, she glared. “You could have asked.”
“I think if I asked you would have ran straight for the village revealing both yourself and I.” Chen turned his back on the girl and scanned what he could see, which was very little, and decided to venture a little further to make sure it was safe.
Even without his men or a proper weapon apart from his beloved sword he could still fight off a group of ten with minimum harm to himself and those he protected.
“You can’t go in further!” The woman yelled from behind.
Chen snapped around and resisted all urge to shout. “Do you not understand how vital it is to be quiet at a time like this?” he asks. Obviously not, he thinks, as she folded her arms with an attitude he’d never seen on any person before.
What family had raised their child to be so rude and disrespectful?
He couldn’t help but look down on the woman not far off a child.
Fine, he thought. If she doesn’t want to follow me, so be it.
Proceeding into the forest without her, Chen could hear Saeji’s frantic feet tripping to catch up with him. Maybe ignoring the ignorant girl would prove useful and drive some obedience into her bones otherwise he’d have to tame her himself and he wasn’t exactly up for that job.
Chen could make out the faint trace of humans on the ground - old footprints from when it had last rained, dried into the solid ground over the hot seasons. Whatever tales that had been told were obviously to keep people out and away from those who didn’t want to be found.
However, despite the footprints, whether the trees and environment itself had been affected, it wasn’t obvious. Snapped twigs were nowhere to be seen and no clear path indicated a route or recent routes those had took. Whoever was here hadn’t been here in a while. Or hadn't been out in a while.
“We’ll get lost,” she tried to tell him.
“No, you’ll get lost. I can find my way out here perfectly fine,” he told her, although he wasn’t so sure of that.
She gasped. “Did you hear that?” but Chen hadn’t heard a thing.
The silly girl didn’t know when to be quiet.
Ahead he saw a large space on the ground, big enough for them both to lay down and rest for the night. Sighing, he sat down by a rough trunk of a tree and thanked the dense forest for the protection from the nipping wind.
Closing his eyes, he could feel Saeji’s presence join him. She sat down further away from him, it suited Chen. He didn’t care.
Now he had nothing to worry about for the day, he found himself remembering. It was why he always kept himself busy; either dealing with his men or making his rounds through the village. He never spared himself time to think.
Shinwoo and Chae first came to mind, and then it was his father.
He couldn’t help but blame the death of his dearest friends on his father - although he hadn’t been involved, his mere presence in this community provoked it. If only his family would step down from the royal position and join hands with other regions. They could come together and fight to become one. It was what Chen and his men fought for, it’s what Shinwoo and Chae fought for.
Chen felt even worse having to leave their bodies in enemy territory, but there would be no way he’d make it from the village alive with their bodies on the back of a horse - he had to be considerate towards the horse, and not to mention the several dozen armed men who could easily attack at once.
Chen would have been useless, curse or not.
No matter how sad Chen got, though, he could not cry. Sometimes he had wondered what it would be like to cry - he hadn’t done so since he was a very small child, when it was drilled into him that crying was not in his nature. He could not cry or he’d get a lashing.
It was almost like he was too scared to cry, scarred from his own fathers threats.
Internally, the anger caused by the dense annoying woman before him had died down and the flames had been tamed. Instead, ice began to form causing a sizzling steam to rise up and erode at his bones and his internal workings. He felt like he was dying. He didn’t want to move from this spot so long as Shinwoo - a man so close to his heart - was not here.
Chae, one of his best fighters and most trusted man. Gone.
Although he was supposed to trust everyone within his Nightsmen, the two had been with him since the start. It was hard to create a bond without love as deep as he had with the two in his stone cold heart.
It was like being kicked out of home all over again. The imperial palace.
He remembered the day clear. Not a day over sixteen and they’d summoned him into his father’s chambers. It appeared not only his family wanted him gone, but also his advisors.
Nothing but a nuisance.
There’s no Joseon running through your blood.
But Chen could say for sure he was their son. His father had the curse running through his blood but his mother was human; curse less and free - arranged in a fateful marriage of loveless horror and lonely companionship. He felt sorry for his mother in a way, although she herself didn’t appear fond of her own son.
Chen growing up had always felt alone, he always felt like no one was there for him. He knew it was the curse he’d been told so much about since a child. Everyone knew about it, so never put an effort in to provide the love Chen so longingly desired.
He’d see from his palace window the commoner children with their parents occasionally, and he’d wish to be held by his father how those children were held by theirs.
It wasn’t to be, however. Born into the wrong bloodline to the wrong parents. Now he’d bear a curse of a lifetime.
“You’re no longer a son of mines, boy. Off you go. We’ll give you some gold, but be warned, Chen, if you ever return there’ll be consequences.” His father’s words were harsh and resonated in his ears as he slept.
There was never a clear explanation why he was treated the way he was. He was a child that was never meant to be, and he’d leave his questions with that answer.
“Chen?” he heard.
Opening his eyes, his vision focused until he remembered where he was. Saeji sat staring with tearful eyes. “I can’t go back home, can I?”
Chen was angered and couldn’t take back his answer before he’d already said it, “Unless you want your head severed and stuck on a spike in the village square like our friends, then no.”
He regretted the answer as soon as he said it, seeing her face contort into an indescribable pain and immense hatred. “You could be a little more considerate.”
Chen sighed, choosing to ignore what she said. “You should start considering changing your identity, and then once I’m done with you where you’ll be going after,” he explained.
A small tear rolled down her delicate creamy white cheek. “After you’re done with me, what does that mean?” she snarled, hastily wiping her cheek.
“You know more about the village than anybody else. I came looking for someone. You know more than you’re letting on, don’t you?”
She pursed her lips and flicked her hair from her face giving him a better view of her expression. Although dimmed by the dense forest and lack of light, he could see her eyes clearly, and within those eyes reflected a pain that went much deeper than losing just a mere master.
“What do I get out of telling you anything? You can’t touch me,” she said, feeling superior thinking he wouldn’t harm her.
Woman or not, Chen would not hesitate to strike a woman. She was an obstacle, gender did not matter.
“What do you want?” he asked/ Chen wondered to himself if this was the first time he’d ever bargained with someone?
She appeared surprised at how easy he gave in, but she quickly recomposed her face and became an emotionless wall. “My safety. Guarantee my safety.”
“You have to do everything that I ask.” Chen makes sure she knows who’ll be in charge of the situation, and there was no way he’d let her lead him.
“Deal. That means no abandoning me as I sleep,” she pointed out. It was as if she could read him, because Chen couldn't deny that thought hadn’t crossed his mind. “Who are you curious about?”
“The Taoshi messengers.”
All of sudden the wind stopped and the wildlife fell silent. Like Saeji’s face, it dropped
“You know something!” he pointed out.
Saeji didn’t take in what Chen had said though, and instead tensed and peered around. “Something isn’t right.”
Chen looked around and saw nothing suspicious. “Stop avoiding the question.”
“No, something seriously isn’t right,” she whispered as she slowly stood up with the aid of a tree.
The abnormal deafening silence stood out in a way that made Chen almost believe her trick. About to turn around and scold Saeji, he saw a dark patch within the forest shift abnormally quick.
His hand instinctively reached for his sword. Drawing it from its sheath, he held it up looking at it glint in the light with faint spatter of blood from previous battles yet to be cleaned from its surface.
“Who’s there?” he growls lowly into the light forest air.
Saeji moves closer to Chen, almost hiding behind his back. He felt a small smidge of pride that he was still in charge here. Glad that he trusted him enough not to turn his sword on her. This could work either way.
The shadow evolves towards them, and then appearing before them, and elderly woman. “What are you doing in the middle of the forest?”
Chen narrowed his eyes suspiciously. How did an elderly woman on the door of death navigate her way through the sharp branches and shrubs?
“Come, come. You look cold.”
The woman had navigated the forest with no problem, and while Chen himself was skilled at the job, every tree they passed still looked the same and no tracks were left for the woman to follow. She just knew.
While Chen was weary to follow the woman, Saeji had insisted - Chen couldn’t risk having her run off now knowing for sure she knew more than she was letting on.
Chen was sure Saeji just wanted away from the cold outdoors, and she couldn’t blame her. He’d slept outside for months without a proper bed, he was used to it, but he was sure she had the comfort of her own bed and had never slept outside for as long as she had lived.
A small cottage was visible through the green, it wasn’t a place you’d expect anyone to live, but Chen could accept the fact that they’d be some who’d defy the norm - even an old lady.
“You’re welcome to stay the night, if you have nowhere else to go,” she offers, but Chen felt something wasn’t right.
“We’d be more than grateful,” Saeji replied before Chen could deny her more than suspicious offer of hospitality. Who in any form of right mind would offer complete stranger shelter when they were found roaming the middle of the forest?
Maybe she wasn’t in her right mind - all the more reason to be warned off.
Entering her house, Chen stared at the door as the old woman closed it, bolting it with several form of locks. “You never know who’s out there,” she explained when she saw Chen’s uncertain gaze.
Or who you don’t want escaping, Chen thought.
Turning from the door he wasn’t expecting the mounds of clutter to line the walls on wooden shelves and items on the most random of places. Was there any room to move?
“Sit, sit,” she signals to an area that didn’t appear to have any chairs. The old lady moves some junk from the chair and let Saeji sit down first. “What’s your story?” she asked, staring specifically at Chen.
Saeji looked wearily up at Chen, as if asking permission to spill her guts. He shook his head no and hoped she got the picture.
“Young man, please leave all weapons by the door. This is a peaceful household,” she warns, with a pointed look at the handle of his sword peeking out of its sheath.
“I’m afraid I can’t do that-.”
The old lady movies over to an enclosed fire and lifts a large pot of boiling water from its bay. “I think you should, Chen.”
Saeji looked between the two like a war was going to break out.
Chen backed to the door, no intention of putting down his sword and every intention of abandoning Saeji if it came to it. “How do you know my name?”
“Just because I live in the forest doesn’t mean I nothing about Gauna.” The lady pours the boiling water into two cups and places them for them both on empty spaces on the barely visible table. “I haven’t seen you since you were very little.”
“You know my father,” Chen mumbles. It’s all that registers.
Fully prepared to break down the door, he lays his hand on the door knob.
“He hired me, more than twenty years ago to break the curse of the spellbinders.”
Chen shakes his head. “A spellbinders curse can only be lifted by a spellbinder. They exist no longer, they died generations ago.” It was true; the strong line of spellbinders had died out with their secrets when his granddad was a boy - hunter by the humans they helped.
“My family escaped the trials,” she explained. “Your father asked my help, but it became obvious this curse was placed so it could not be undone. It’s an eternal fate that can only be killed by docking a bloodline.” The old woman sat down as well, under candlelight she looked older than he originally thought. “Sit, I won’t do any harm.”
He does so, but wearily. Besides Saeji, she stays silent.
“Ma’am, what are the jars for?” Saeji asked, pointing across the way at the jars and weird liquids bottled up on the shelf.
“They aid me in my magic. Would you like your fortune told?” she asked, getting up slowly and reaching for a clear bottle on the bottom shelf. Herb and flowers floated inside, the liquid was dirty and unclear.
“We shouldn’t mess with the fates. An insight to the future could cause a lot of harm,” Saeji nervously laughed.
The elderly woman waved her hand in dismissal. “Nonsense. If you do it correctly, everything works out just fine.” She takes the cork from the bottle with a pop and holds it out to us. “Hands,” she asked us both.
Chen got from his seat and stood behind Saeji, holding his hand out by her own outstretched hand.
She poured the liquid gently into their palms revealing tiny pieces of plants and leafs.
“They’ll form a pattern that I can read,” she explained.
Another cheap trick, no doubt about it, Chen thought At least she wasn’t charging them for the reading. Not that Chen wasn’t curious about what she’d say.
“What does it say?” Saeji asked, as the water began to dry at a quick rate and leave the small pieces stuck to her palm.
Chen stared down into his own and found his palm to be the same.
“Oh dear,” she mumbled.
Saeji looks up at Chen and then back into her palm. “What is it?”
“I’ve never had two people have the exact same pattern,” she whispered as she grabbed both our hands and looked at them carefully.
Chen looked as well, and sure enough he saw both of their hands with the exact same pattern left by the leafs. But that couldn’t be possible - They both had different hand shapes.
“You both have a small cluster here-.” she points to a section on Saeji’s hand that corresponded to the same part on Chen’s. “-and you both have a correlation spanning diagonally to the left.”
“What does it mean?” Saeji asked, completely indulged in what she was being told. Chen was tempted to flick the back of her head and tell her to get her heads from the clouds, but what harm would it do if they finished listening to what she had to say?
“The fact they’re both the same signs you’re destined. You never come across a one true pair these days. It’s a miracle.”
One true pair. Chen felt like snorting. He was incapable of love, he could have no partner.
“-The fact it goes diagonally left shows me you’re both fighters, you both fight for your dreams and your side of the story. There will come a time when you fight on the same side to help each other out.” she swipes a line down both their palms for reasoning beyond Chen. “That bit right there - it means death.”
“Who’s going to die?” Saeji wondered aloud, probably pained by her recent loss as well.
“That I do not know. I’m from a weak line of spell-binders and can only find out so much from the details,” the elderly woman sighs.
Saeji looks up and the scared glint to her eyes tells Chen she believed every last word the woman had said. Why should he, though?