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

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Chapter 8: Journey of no return - Part 2

By the time Soo-Ah recovered enough to scream and kick at the soldier and try to escape they were far from the camp. Safe enough for the soldier to take her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her.

“Look! Do you see the red light on the horizon? What do you think that is? The dawn? It’s too early for that and the wrong direction anyway. The camp is gone. I do hope our general is ok.”

“You don’t understand, my grandfather, I was supposed to go back for him!”

“I’m sure he was able to escape. My general is a capable man and he led everyone to safety.”

“Your general is a piece of crap! My grandfather is general Min-Jun! He was ill and bedridden. He could have not run away, not without a horse.” – spurt Soo-Ah in anger.

The realization that her grandfather could be dead started to creep up on Soo-Ah and she started shaking with fury for being too incompetent to save him. She failed to save her saviour. She could not stand up for him and save his life. She did not have enough muscle power. She, together with this man in front of her and that lousy general. They were all to blame for the old general’s death. She was ready to tear to pieces the soldier in front of her and she launched at him with her fists in the air. But all she managed to do is fall to the ground since the soldier stepped out of the way. She crumbled in wailing for her lost grandfather as the soldier kneeled near her and attempted to console her.

He felt empathy for what he knew to be a young soldier grieving his loss, remembering how he felt when he lost his sick mother without being able to save her.

“I am sorry you lost your grandfather – we all lost a fellow soldier. Every death has a heavy toll on each of us. It is not easy to lose anyone.”

“We left him behind, we just left him behind to save ourselves!” –Soo-Ah was now sobbing out loud.

“What is the point in dying? We need to live to fight another day. We need to avenge all their deaths! Death to those invaders!” - grits through his teeth the soldier.

“Death to you too, coward!”thought to herself Soo-Ah looking with contempt at the young soldier.

Looking at him she had no chance to win in close combat. He stood 6 feet tall and had a heavy build. If it were not for his eyes that emanated kindness, you would have thought him to be a killing machine.

With no place to go back to, there was only going forward. Inertia was what was moving Soo-Ah onward. Inertia and apathy. From time to time, she would start sobbing remembering something about her grandfather.

When daylight came, they were on the road towards general Sung-Ho’s camp. They still had some way to go, probably arriving there the next day before sunset. The horse was not moving any faster having to carry 2 people. So, they had to take turns riding the horse to allow him some respite.

Soo-Ah never liked to travel but this time she started feeling nauseated and felt a belly ache.

“We need to make a stop. I need to go pass water!” – said Soo-Ah feeling uneasy.

“Good idea. I needed to go take a piss also. Let’s go together!”

“No!” – comes Soo-Ah’s sudden and urgent response as she continued, realizing her reaction was over the top.

“I mean... I’m feeling constipated. We need to go separately!” – said she starting to blush and to realize what she just said. But she commended herself: “Good thinking Soo-Ah. No point in feeling embarrassed now. Think of what you got yourself out of!”

That response left the soldier with a funny expression on his face feeling also relieved that he managed to avoid that shared experience.

She went looking for a spot well out of the sight of her companion. And she took off her trousers. She had a suspicion, but she begged the gods she was wrong. But the gods were not listening. She just had her period. Having her period while pretending to be a man was not fun. Besides the discomfort, she always had to be extra careful cleaning and disposing of her rags. That was difficult in the camp. Now, being close to someone, was unmasterable. She thought herself lucky her period only lasted 2 or 3 days. But now all she could do was to curse at her condition as a woman. She took some leaves and ripped out some of the bandages that kept her chest hidden hoping it will be enough until their next stop.

She returned to the soldier that was beginning to worry for his companion’s wellbeing but was also dreading the possibility he might have to go look for him. Soo-Ah felt more uneasy near the man and for some reason was embarrassed to look at his face. They continued their journey until they stopped and prepared for the night. The long road and her emotional state took a big toll on Soo-Ah. And sitting near the fire after having eaten some rations she was feeling more and more drowsy. She knew there was something she needed to do before going to sleep but fatigue took the big prize and sent her snoring until morning.

When morning came, she suddenly woke up feeling like she forgot something. Her companion was already up and preparing for the final leg of their journey. They would arrive at the camp by nightfall.

Soo-Ah was feeling dizzy for getting up so suddenly. And she remembered. She had to check her pants before going to sleep and she totally forgot. Now she needed to make another excuse to go take care of her business.

“I need to go...” – but the expression of the soldier’s stopped her mid-sentence.

“Are you injured? There is blood!” – asked the soldier with a worried expression while pointing at her legs.

Following the soldier’s stare and his pointing finger Soo-Ah looked down in shock and muttered:

“Blood!?”

“Your legs! How? Who?? You were injured and never said anything. Let me see!”

“No! It’s nothing, just a scratch” – came Soo-Ah’s panicked response while trying to avoid the soldier.

They were now going around the extinguished hearth. The soldier tried to catch on her as she was trying to evade him.

“Don’t be a fool! You can get a fever from that and die!”

“Trust me. I’m fine, I just need to go pee!”

“What are you talking about? Are you delirious from the fever?”

“Just let me be!” – screamed Soo-Ah.

“What? What is that? What is the reason there is blood on your legs?“– started to ask the soldier pointing to her legs and feeling more and more confused by her reaction, so he persisted.

“Let me see. Stand still and let me see!”

“Never!”

“Why are you avoiding me? Are you...? That blood? Are you a woman?” – asked the soldier in disbelief.

Soo-Ah’s blood turned to ice as the soldier grabbed her and pinned her to the ground.

“Stand still. I need to check on you!” – said the soldier through his teeth as Soo-Ah was struggling to set herself free.

He tried to pin both of her hands with his left arm and use the right hand to take off her pants and see what was going on. But she was struggling too much and he could not reach.

“Are you a woman? Are you a woman!?” – the soldier seemed stuck on this question.

Soo-Ah was terrified thinking:

“This is it! He is going to rape me! He is going to act his nature out. Like all the other evil men. He is going to rape me, and I can do nothing about it.” The soldier’s eyes were a mix of shock, curiosity and an unknown urgency and started to scare Soo-Ah to the core.

Seeing he could not get a clear answer from his companion the soldier tried again to reach her trousers. But Soo-Ah was struggling too much, so the soldier focused his attention on her breastplate armour. He needed to take that out of the way to check if he was indeed dealing with a man or a woman.

All he had to do was to untie the armour’s bindings from the shoulder and her side. That he could reach. After he untied the binding from the left shoulder and her left side and took the plate out of the way he let go of Soo-Ah’s hands to rip open the uniform shirt. Soo-Ah having her hands free started to hit his chest, but she felt no resistance. Her companion’s eyes were now in shock looking at her covered chest that still resembled that of a woman through the bandages.

He started to back away gasping while Soo-Ah was covering herself up.

“...You are a woman!” – said he as he brought his hand to his mouth unable to contain his surprise.

“What if I am a woman? Stay away from me you freak! How dare you touch me! I am going to split open your guts if you put your hands on me again!” – said Soo-Ah rabid with anger and fear.

“I’m sorry...I just...You were...You had blood and...I... Thought you were hurt. You wouldn’t say anything true...I... I had to know...what are you doing wearing men’s clothes?”

“Keeping myself safe from the likes of you, you monster!”

“Oh...a disguise...I see...I’m sorry if I hurt you. Let me help you dress!” – his tone was that of a child knowing that he did something wrong and trying to make amends.

“Stay away. Don’t come any closer!”

“....” – the soldier was unable to find his words.

“Look what you did to my clothes. Look what you did to my hands!” – said Soo-Ah showing her ripped shirt and her red wrists.

“Sorry about your blouse. Here you can take mine!” – and the soldier started to undress himself to offer his clothes as penance for what he did.

“You better not tell anyone else about this or I will slit your throat.” – menaced Soo-Ah.

“But you cannot go on disguising yourself forever. The general’s camp is a safe place. You will see...Since you are close with him nothing will happen to you. Does the general know what you are?”

“I don’t care! I just want you to stay away from me now!”

“Hear me out...I am truly sorry. For hurting you and for scaring you I promise I would not do anything to you. As far as I am concerned you are still a guy...a comrade...a soldier. A friend. Ok?”

But it was clear to Soo-Ah that her companion’s eyes were no longer looking at her as if she was his comrade. Not after he ripped out her blouse and stared at her barley covered bosom.

Where could she run, what could she do? What would this guy say about her at camp? She could run away. Steal the horse and run away. But she first needed to take care of her body. When she returned her companion was already waiting for her on the horse as if he knew her intentions. She had no other option than to take his hand and accept his help to mount. She will have to find another opportunity.

The opportunity to escape from the soldier never came.

He never said another word to her as they travelled the rest of the way except asking her for water or food. There were no more stops until they reached the camp. After they arrived at the camp, he led her to the general’s tent.

General Sung-Ho’s camp was a clear example of military rigour. The tents laid in an orderly fashion in long rows at an exact distance. Only the faded burgundy cloth and the churned mud were an indication that the camp had seen its fair share of ventures. The general’s tent was the largest structure and was adorned with gold trimmings. By the entrance, on each side, stood banners holding the crest of his troops: a wild boar.

“You will be safe here. I will be back to bring you food and water to wash and a change of clothes. What is your real name anyway? I guess it is not Soo-Yun after all!”

“It is Soo-Ah!”

“Nice to meet you my lady Soo-Ah! My name is Do-Yun! You should rest. I will be right back!”

She could not believe she was safe for now. She went so far with an unknown man and she was still in one piece. And though he manhandled her on the way, due to a misunderstanding, he was a gentleman afterwards. Was it just a farce? Or was he too afraid of his general?

Being so far away from the old encampment Soo-Ah started to feel the urge to go back. To go back and see for herself what was left of it, what remained of her grandfather. Maybe, by some miracle, he was safe and was asking for her. Maybe that great general was able to save him. Who was she fooling? He was the one that was ready to flee and rip her apart from her only family. She did owe him her life but that only increased her frustration with him. One thing was for sure: she did not want to spend more time here. She needed to go back, make her peace and then she would see what would be in store for her. She had to wait for the night to go pitch black and save some of the food, from that which the soldier was bringing her, for the road.

True to his word Do-Yun, brought her food, a basin of water to freshen up and some clothes. Some women’s clothes. She was grateful for the sustenance, but she glared at him when she saw the women’s clothes.

“Like I said before, no need to hide anymore and I do not think you would want some of my men’s clothes anyway. We have no new ones. But those I brought you were borrowed from the gisaeng* who entertain the soldiers. They are clean at least. I will leave you to it then.”

Before he left the tent Do-Yun stopped and added:

“The general should be back soon but if you need anything just ask for Do-Yun. Have a good night lady Soo-Ah!” – and as if he were saying goodbye to a noble lady, he saluted her respectfully and left.

She needed to tend to the monthly issue anyway and a pair of fresh clothes will feel good. She will keep her sword and take her armour plate with her though. Those were now the only things she had to remember her grandfather by. Those and the medicine in her sack that will no longer be needed. Or maybe, by some miracle...Soo-Ah felt tears overcoming her again. But she needed to keep focus. Just watch for when the road was clear and head out. Luckily Do-Yun also brought her a long cape thinking she will need it in the cold night. That could be used to hide her figure and make her look a little less conspicuous.

Soo-Ah had to struggle a little to figure out how to dress in woman clothes. Luckily she still remembered what Ha-Rin Noona taught her about what to wear first and how to tie the high waist binding. She kept her hair tied in a manly bun thou. Taking the food into her backpack she slipped out of the tent. Now where to find the horses? Her location seemed to be near the stables as she heard their neigh-ing close by. She quickly secured a horse taking advantage of the fact no one was around, and she walked slowly through the camp so as to not draw attention. And as she expected not a lot of the people around looked her way. Keeping her boyish looks was a good idea. She just hoped no one would notice the dress.

As she was coming close to the entrance, she thought she was hearing some loud thuds from afar, out of the encampment. Then someone quickly called from behind:

“Hey, you there! Where do you think you are taking that horse? Stop right there!”

There was nowhere to run since the way in front of her was now being blocked by countless soldiers returning from her old encampment. In the first line stood a man that appeared to be leading them. And behind her, a couple of soldiers were approaching to investigate. No way to run. She could only try to break her way out. So, taking out her sword she pointed it towards the 2 soldiers questioning and cornering her.

“It’s a girl...what are you doing with that sword, you crazy girl. Do you have a death wish?” asked one of the men taking a better look at her.

“I only want for you to let me pass.“– Soo-Ah pleaded.

“No way you are passing through here, pretty lady. No one steals a horse from us. And would you look at that? Our general is just returning.”

“Soo-Ah! What are you doing?” – it was Do-Yun running towards her as if he had finally found the precious thing he had lost.

“Put the sword down there is nowhere to go Soo-Ah!” – commanded her Do-Yun.

“What is the meaning of this?“– said with a loud thud the general that had entered his camp as he perched his horse next to Soo-Ah.

Seeing him close Soo-Ah turned the sword towards the general.

“I need to go back to my camp.“– she commanded.

The Great General leaned slightly over his horse and sneered at her:

“What a strange vision I see in front of me. Now do tell me: are you a boy dressed as a girl or a girl masquerading as a boy?” – asked the general mockingly while his men started laughing all around Soo-Ah.

“She is a girl general!” – came forward Do-Yun’s answer.

“I brought her back safe and sound as you ordered me. She must be confused and worried about her grandfather.” – tried to protect her Do-Yun.

“That is no excuse for any girl to menace my men and steal my horse! “– came back the general’s answer, while his eyes remained locked on Soo-Ah’s.

“What are you going to do?” – asked the general mockingly addressing her, then added:

“Slice through me and an entire army to go past us? If I would have known you were that capable I would have kept you with us, fighting. You would have been of great help defeating the enemy!” – and the general’s words started another round of laughter that was heard throughout.

“How dare you mock me. You call yourself a soldier? You coward! You did not know how to flee faster. A real general would have fought until he would have saved the camp and the people. Come down and face me if you are so brave!” – Soo-Ah lost her mind with anger and did not care anymore what the consequences of her actions will be.

The general’s face now turned serious, too serious and too aggravated as he slid from his horse. Now Soo-Ah could see him better as he was no longer wearing the face cover and the moon and the torches around shone on his face. She was a little in shock as she thought he was such a handsome man. With his face scar and all. His eyes were glistening red like blood thou and his menacing look made her quiver. But she had nowhere to go and she was too desperate to think clearly so she launched a sword attack. Her blow did not start at the right angle, so it was weak. Weak enough for the general to catch it with his gloved hand and pull the sword away from her.

“Stealing and an attack on his majesty’s general!” – came like thunder, his menacing voice.

“My men know the punishment for such actions...“– and leaning closer he said in a calmer and almost hushed voice:

" Maybe it is time you learn it too.”

Then the Great General commanded his men:

“Take her to the brig. I will give my sentence in the morning.” – and he turned to leave, taking his horse. He was way too tired to continue dealing with this problem called Soo-Ah. They had been riding for almost an entire day with no stops on the way.

“What about my grandfather, you coward, what happened to him?”

General Sung-Ho stopped and turned to face the girl.

“He is dead. His tent was burned down and there was no way to take him out.” – he was now facing her straightforwardly as he would have been facing his men when he was telling them their friends were dead. Such news needed no other emotion than respect and resignation. Then he reached for his saddle and pulled out an object enveloped in leather.

“I waited for the fire to die out to give him a proper burial. I also kept this thinking you would want something of his.” – and he handed her what turned out to be a scorched sword.

Though badly burned she did recognize the crest of the old general. She clutched it to her chest and started to cry. Two soldiers came to take her to the brig now, but nothing mattered anymore for Soo-Ah.

The brig was a cage in a filthy tent that laid directly on the ground and Soo-Ah was left there to cry her heart out. Sometime later Do-Yun came to visit bringing her some water and some rice wine for himself. He offered her some, but she refused.

“Why did you go and do something stupid like that? I have never seen anyone menace the general and live to tell the tale. Who knows how he will punish you, now?”

“I don’t care!” – said Soo-Ah, looking up through the tent opening from where she could see some parts of the starry sky.

“Punishment for stealing is death. Punishment for attacking the general is death. If he won’t kill you, he would have to at least cut off your hand.” – said Do-Yun to a still uninterested Soo-Ah.

“A young girl like you? What would you do without your hand? No one would want to marry you.” – he continued in desperation trying to get a reaction.

But no reaction was coming. Soo-Ah’s face was dirtied and still held marks from her tears but was as still and as cold as a stone.

“Well, if you do survive and you do get your hand cut off, do not worry. I will be willing to marry you!” – joked Do-Yun hoping he will be able to put a smile on her face also. But all he did was to make her move her gaze to his and speak:

“I will never marry anyone. I hope I get the death sentence.”

With a sigh Do-Yun spoke:

“You are just being overdramatic. I see I cannot take you out of your dreary mood. So, if you don’t mind, I would just stay here and finish my drink. In silence...”

Soo-Ah did not comment, instead she again turned her gaze towards the sky. But she knew Do-Yun was still there so she would not feel so lonely and she was grateful.

When morning came Do-Yun was the first face she saw as she opened her eyes. She slept in a bad position and her neck was throbbing. Do-Yun was waiting patiently for her to wake up.

“You must be really someone important to the general. It is either that or he wants for you to have a clean neck when he chops it off. Come on! Get up!” - motioned for her to come out as he opened the gate of the cage. Then he commented:

“He made me run around earlier in the morning to talk to the brothel’s matrons so they would take care of you and make you look presentable.”

“What?” – asked Soo-Ah, having too many words coming her way after such a bad night’s rest.

“We need to go. You get a tent to yourself and a nice bath. Enough for anyone to chase their death wish away.”

Feeling a little drowsy Soo-Ah followed Do-Yun to one of the tents in the camp. Inside she found a clean bed, some new clothes and a tub filled with hot water. Not long after two middle-aged ladies entered her tent carrying some big wood boxes painted in vivid colours.

“Good morning to you, dearie. Let’s take a look at you. We were told to make you look like a real young lady.” – said one of the women that had a yellow flower in her hair.

“Well, would you look at that? Such a waste of a young body and a pretty face” – the lady with the yellow flower continued.

“Oh...did you see her eyes... of course, you didn’t. You are as blind as a bat, you old crone.” said the other old woman.

“Eyes? Let me see!“– and the woman with the yellow flower came closer:

“Oh, you have eyes like water dearie...but they are so sad. Such a waste of a pretty face and your pretty eyes to look so sad.”

“And why are you so filthy my dear? Did you go fighting with the men?” – said as a joke the second woman that had really red cheeks.

“I did in a way.“– answered Soo-Ah and the old ladies looked at each other as they did not expect that answer.

“Well anyway, we need to hurry so let’s get you in the bath.”

And they opened their boxes revealing bottles and smaller boxes filled with powders, wash oils and perfumes. They helped Soo-Ah bathe and they scrubbed her skin like she was never scrubbed before.

“We need to bring this beautiful skin to life now, don’t we. And we must not forget that magic place either”– said the woman with the red cheeks as she launched for Soo-Ah crutch taking her by surprise as she shoved the foreign hand away.

“Oh my why are acting so coyly? Don’t tell me you have never been touched by a man. What a treasure the general has found. No wonder he is showing so much interest in you.”

“He is not much of a client of ours. And in the few times, we have seen him I do recall a girl we had. Yes, a girl with some strange eyes like yours. He took her for the night and by the next morning, she came to tell us she was going away to the capital. The general set her up real nice. But such an ungrateful girl! She never wrote to us to let us know how she was doing. Ntz.” added the women with the yellow lower.

“Yes...I do remember that one. She was really pretty, wasn’t she? And such a great earner. He did us a great disservice by sending her away. Though I think that he must have not liked her that much. If he would have liked her, he would have kept her close and enjoyed her every night.” – and then both women started laughing in an eerie manner.

“But I guess now he found you!” – said the woman with the flower.

" He does have a kink, our general, for strange, beautiful eyes.“– said the other one grinning.

“But listen, girl, if nothing comes out of this affair with the general, we will be happy to take you in. I am sure you will be a star.”

“Ugh. Stop talking. It is nothing like that between the general and I.” – said Soo-Ah feeling creeped out by the old woman’s words.

“Oh...so feisty. Are you and the general related?”

“For some people that would not be a problem!” – said the woman with the red cheeks who was looser with her morals. They both started to laugh their weird laugh again while creeping Soo-Ah out with their discussion and their sounds even more.

“We need to have you ready for anything anyway. Money buys what money buys after all.”

They washed her hair with soap and her body with the fragrant oils. In the end, they pulled out a box containing wax and started waxing her legs, armpits, and her crotch, where Soo-Ah fought them with gritted teeth.

“With such beautiful skin, there is no need for powders. Just a little rouge on the lips. Oh my, you are a vision dearie!” – exclaimed the woman with the red cheeks and they showed Soo-Ah a mirror.

Looking in the mirror Soo-Ah could not believe it was her. She never had a chance to dress and look like a young woman. She thought she looked as beautiful as she could be. But that scared her out of her wits. If she looked like that, she would now draw the attention of every man around.

It had taken close to 2 hours for her to get ready and Do-Yun was waiting outside of the tent to take her to see the general. When she came out, he almost fell from his stool then quickly stood up.

“Aa...you...Look good...Yeah...you look good! I think you should keep this look. Yeah...no need to go back to the men’s clothes!” – he said, trying to act cool.

Soo-Ah felt embarrassed and a little annoyed by his stare. Plus, the other men around were eyeing her now. The walk to the general’s tent would be a difficult one for Soo-Ah.

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