The Flower on the Riverbank (Book 1 - The Sprout)

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Chapter 7: Journey of no return - Part 1

In the encampment of old general Min-Jun the night was calling for her rights. It was late and Soo-Ah’s eyes were getting heavy. All the other nights she spent watching over her grandfather had taken their tool as she placed her head on his bed to fall asleep. But the noise outside jolted her up. Someone was approaching the tent. They would usually be announced but no announcement was made. She took her sword and positioned herself by the tent’s entrance ready to attack.

With a self-assured move, a man drew back the curtain and entered with a confident stride only to find his neck facing the sharp blade of Soo-Ah.

“How dare you enter the general’s tent unannounced? Who do you think you are?” – asked the girl disguised as a boy of the man standing now at the tip of her sword.

The intruder’s eyes were sharp and fierce, like piercing arrows. A scar was embedded in his left eyebrow and his lower face was covered with a black veil. He had the ornate armour of a high ranking official and his helmet was in his hand.

“I am a friend.” – replied the men trying to sound calm and gentle.

“Enemies come disguised in many things these days. Even as friends.”

“I assure you I am not an enemy and I would appreciate you pointing your sword someplace else.” and he motioned for her to move her sword away from his neck.

“No introduction of who you are, and yet you make demands. Where are your manners my ‘friend’?”

The man started to chuckle, no longer able to abstain himself and with a mix of annoyance and amusement was now measuring from head to toe the young looking, but daring, “boy” that was standing in front of him.

Soo-Ah felt uneasy and held her sword more menacingly.

“General Sung-Ho, at last, you have arrived!” – said the old man that was awake now from the commotion and continued:

“Please pardon my aid. It’s alright child put that thing away before you bring more grievance to the general.”

Hearing that this was the general her grandfather was expecting, Soo-Ah put away her sword but not before giving him a distrustful look.

“General Sung-Ho. Such a long time since we’ve last seen each other. I am so sorry I am not able to greet you properly. But there are many things to discuss. Soo-Yun, could you give us some privacy and make sure we will not be bothered.” – gently asked the old general.

“I am afraid it is too late for that. We are already bothered.” – spurred Soo-Ah as she exited the tent, infuriated while the stunned gaze of the Mighty General of the King followed suit.

After they found each other alone, general Sung-Ho approached the bed of the dying man and gently rested his hand on his.

“That lad needs some discipline.” – said the old general trying to perch himself up from his bed.

“Indeed, but who is to do that? I see Death is coming for you old friend. I am glad She is not here yet so we can have one last talk.” – the eyes of the Great General were slowly swallowed in pitty.

“If I become unable to take care of my troops the King would have my head anyway. Thank you for coming so soon to take over. General Sung-Ho, my regiments...”

“Yes, I know all the details. You did well in informing me and everything is prepared for me to take over, do not worry your old heart for this.”

“Then, I have another request for you. My aid, I do not know if you recognized she is a girl, she is my granddaughter Soo-Ah. She is almost 18 years old now and I have disguised her, for all these years, as a boy to keep her safe. I managed to do that very well, but I am afraid of what will happen to her after I am gone.”

“So that is your granddaughter then – she did seem unfit to be a boy. Much too talkative and brazen. But good disguise old man. You need not worry about her. She seems fierce and I am sure she will be alright...”

“No... what I mean is, she has been in this place for too long, it has been 10 years now. Far too long. I want her to become the young lady she deserves to be. I was thinking, and forgive me if I step too far, but maybe you can take her away. If you like her, I had hoped you could make her your consort, or a concubine, or if she does not please you in that way you just take her into your home and let her be free and make herself useful there.”

“I came here expecting to take with me an army, not a wife my friend.” – said the general laughing.

But the old general was not giving-up:

“I gave her the best education as she can read and write. And some fighting lessons. She can defend herself well. She still needs a little disciple, it is true but what she lacks most is learning how to behave like a young lady. She had no one to teach her that. I am afraid she will find it hard adapting after the war ends. Oh, and you should see her caring for the wounded. She has a talent for that. I am sure she can be of use to you.”

“Useful you say....” – since the old man mentioned the possibility for the girl to be his wife or a concubine the great general’s view of the girl started to shift from that of her being the old general’s granddaughter to that of her being a woman.

“Please do not be offended by her actions. I am sure that if she gets to know you ag...” – but the king’s general did not let the old man finish.

“I do not intend to take a new consort so that option is out. And a concubine? Are you sure you want her to be a concubine of mine? I am famous for being like a bad luck talisman for women. One wife that is dead, an expelled concubine and another one who left me. It is not exactly a good record. Plus, countless broken hearts I left here and there.“– said the great general laughing.

“Jokes...good...good that you make jokes. All I want for her is to not endure any of the hardship she will have to endure after I am no longer able to protect her. She will have no one else in this world after I am dead, so I entrust her to you. You are a powerful man and I know you will take good care of her. I need you to promise me you will take good care of her! You did make me a promise once...“– the old general was now keeping the man’s palm with both of his hands and looked at him with pleading eyes.

“This is more than I expected to take on. Such a burden you put on my shoulders now. But I do owe you a lot don’t I old friend? So, I promise I will do the best that I can and make sure she is taken care of and that she leads a good life as a young woman. Is that good enough?“– said the king’s general with a pained sigh as if he was taking on the weight of the entire world.

They continued to exchange some pleasantries and share some ideas on what was to come when the noises of metal clashing from outside started to make itself heard inside the tent and with it Soo-Ah appeared with urgency on her face.

Soo-Ah’s voice was strained with panic:

“They are attacking the camp! My general, we should be ready to move you if we cannot fend them off.” – she was addressing directly her grandfather ignoring the presence of the great general.

“Forget any belongings and only take what is necessary – you should go and ready the horses!” – said general Sung-Ho after he took a quick look at what was going on outside.

Soo-Ah grabbed a pack they always keep prepared with medicine and necessities but she suddenly stopped. She turned towards her grandfather’ bed and kissed the old general’s hand as she used to when he was going to battle. Again, no words were spoken. But this time in his head, the general was the one making his peace and saying his goodbyes. Soo-Ah felt that this was not the right time for farewells. A goodbye had no place in her plan to return to take care of the old general. Looking at the touching scene the young general asked cunningly:

“Isn’t that a bit too familiar for a general’s aide? What did you say your name was again...boy?”

“Soo-Yun!” – lied Soo-Ah paying more attention to prepare for the upcoming journey then to this mighty General.

“Then Soo-Yun you should keep close to me I will help you reach the stables.”

“I have a sword and I know how to use it. You better help the men out there so we will not need to leave.“– answered Soo-Ah with her sword at a ready and heading out with General Sung Ho following her.

The way to the stables was blocked by some troops fighting while general Sung-Ho was called by his men in the opposite direction. Unwillingly he had to break his chase of Soo-Ah but the next time he looked back in her direction he saw her caught in a clash. When she said she could handle a sword she spoke the truth though. The general saw she had a fighting chance if only the invaders were not coming and coming and coming.

In a matter of minutes, Soo-Ah found herself having to evade the enemy in order to follow her route but there was a rider with his horse that was approaching menacingly.

The great general understood the rider’s intention and he asked for a lance. In a sure and swift motion, the lance went flying away and found itself stopped by the rider’s torso. He fell with a thud next to Soo-Ah making her turn only to see the general in the distance saluting her with a grin as if wishing her good speed. She knew she owed him her life.

But the general, seeing the situation up close, knew there was no more time – he had to sound the retreat. His fighting party consisted of 6 well-trained soldiers that were trying to make their way to sound the retreat for the scattered troops. The camp was clearly not well defended, and they lacked good intel. This was the only explanation for the sudden attack.

He could not leave Soo-Ah to go get the horses and come back for the old general. There was no coming back. They had to abandon camp. So general Sung-Ho signalled one of his men and ordered him to go after the young soldier whose name was Soo-Yun and, under the cost of his life, make sure he will take the boy out safely and bring him to their main encampment. The general and the rest of their army would surely take more time in getting there if they were able to escape. So, the soldier was not to look back and he was also to take the news of the attack back with him.

The soldier sprinted in the direction his general showed him yelling the boy’s name: Soo-Yun. In the end, a young boy, looking too fair to belong in the army, turned his head and looked at the unknown soldier with his sword ready.

“Are you Soo-Yun? Answer me quickly! Is your name Soo-Yun?”

“What is it to you?” – Soo-Ah had no time for this.

“General Sung-Ho sent me to aid you. You need horses, right? Let’s go. I will help.”

The unknown soldier’s armour and the way he was speaking, un-menacingly, made Soo-Ah trust him and let him follow her. Hiding and avoiding direct confrontation they reached the stables that were further away from where the attackers were coming from. The soldier thought of a plan to escape and to go around the camp in order not to risk being spotted or attacked.

They each got on a horse and Soo-Ah took another one for her grandfather.

“Where is the nearest exit out of here?” – asked the soldier

“There is the small entrance of the south-east of the camp. But we need to get back to the general’s tent.”

But the soldier already took hold of the bridle of Soo-Ah’s horse and started moving towards the south-east exit, in the opposite direction to where Soo-Ah wanted to go.

“What are you doing? Let go of my horse. You are going the wrong way. We need to go back!” – Soo-Ah started to get angry and anxious.

“We can’t go back. We need to flee!”

“Let go I said!” – and Soo-Ah did not wait any longer and took her sword out threatening the soldier.

“This is not the time to play the brave soldier, boy. General Sung-Ho ordered me to take you out of this camp and that’s what I am going to do.”

“Like hell, you will!” - Soo-Ah was in close distance and was preparing to swing her sword, but the man applied a quick blow on her upper chest sending her off the horse and leaving her gasping for air on the ground. He quickly picked her up and sat her stomach down on his saddle knowing this will make her recuperate slower from the blow. Enough time for both to take the soldier’s horse and get out of the encampment that was now starting to glisten red from the fires.

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