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

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Chapter 6: Lady Luck favours the brave

War raged on for ten years now, on the northern and western borders of the Silla Kingdom. While the North front was far from being spared from troubles, most of the fighting was done in the west. The mountainous region of the north held at bay the foes, as they tried to advance mostly from the occidental regions, coming through the western natural mountain pass, or by the sea, where massive galleys would drop enemy troops on the shores of the neighbouring kingdom, who allowed for them to pass.

On the west border, standing against the invaders, were three military divisions, each commanded by three generals, appointed directly by the king. The most battered of the divisions was the regiment of the youngest of them, General Sung-Ho.

The strategies he always opted for were perilous, and what the enemy least expected, and that landed him countless victories, building his renown as the King’s Great General. He was considered the most reckless amongst his peers, but he was for sure the most successful of them. They said that Lady Luck favoured him because luck always favours fools.

Hearing these words made the general huff every time. It was easy to talk about divine intervention, and difficult to understand and accept the facts. Sung-Ho was aware his success had nothing to do with luck, and everything to do with the company of soldiers he kept. He could blindly lay his life in his men’s hands because he was the one who trained those hands, mercilessly.

And it was not his foolishness that made him mount guerilla attacks versus the enemy. It was good intel. This general was no stranger to the power of information. Sending a handful of troops against an entire enemy’s regiment, while camped, could be considered a foolish thing indeed. But the plan was to instigate and draw out the invaders on a terrain of his choosing, and under his own terms.

Strike first was what he aimed for. Then count the moments until the foe falls prey to the trap laid before him. This was one of the strategy lessons he learned well.

One by one, the enemy’s numbers grew as they mounted the chiselled ridge of the hill, and were coming down in waves, diverging and converging in their path, around the boulders scattered on the slopes, splitting like rapids water rushing down a rocky stream bed.

General Sung-Ho and his army laid there waiting, at a considerable distance. He organized his men lining up the bowmen in two rows at the front. After being put to good use they could fall back behind the lines, pacing quickly through the evenly spaced rows that his spearmen and cavalry were holding steady.

In their crazed chase, the guttural shouts let out from deep of the enemy’s chests were slamming against the silence wall of the Silla army’s stillness. Sung-Ho learned to appreciate the ideal moment to rain down his arrows based on how loud their shouts were sounding to his ear.

“Archers ready!” - commanded the general, keeping steady his lamellar armoured horse, and stretching out his arm so his commanders could see his hand sign.

The first line of archers loaded their bows and drew their bowstrings, waiting for the next order. Sung-Ho closed his eyes to focus solely on his hearing. As the enemy’s shouting came closer, pounding his ears, he launched his hand forward:

“Release!” - and fast piercing arrows were set loose upon the enemy, striking those who were not quick enough to protect themselves, under their long shields.

The bowmen from the first line steadily ran behind their comrades and took their position at the back of the aligned troops, while the second line stepped in and mounted their arrows.

“Release!” - could be heard again as the general’s hand movement signalled again.

One more round of raining metal came down on their enemy reaping a large portion of them. And they were still coming, men and horses, streaming like a never-ending river.

The Silla soldiers were steadying themselves as the terrain started to pound under the soles of their boots, tingling their feet. Anticipation stirred their stomach inside. Sweaty hands took better hold of their weapons and started to slam them against their shields, in unison. Their chant filled the surrounding hills and deafened the enemy’s cry. With each hit, courage charged them as each soldier felt he was no longer an individual. They were an army.

Sung-Ho watched the approaching wave and felt adrenaline envelop his heart, pushing blood to his pulsating temples. He grinned in anticipation. Nothing made him feel more alive than being so close on the edge of death. He could taste the air filled with sweat and the sweet aroma of the stirred mud and grass. Soon there will be blood.

“Charge!” - and with this final gesture, he motioned for his mounted squadrons and troops to advance. He remained behind with his own company of soldiers because he had a different goal today. The development of the main battle was put in the trusted hands of his chief commander.

The general’s eyes were scanning the clumps of men fighting, taking note of the progress on the battlefield, and looking to identify the tiger adorned helmet of the enemy’s General. They were old acquaintances and have long taunted each other on the battlefields. Capturing him would glorify this day more than if they came out of this battle victorious. And it could prove to be the source of valuable information, the key to put a stop to their ongoing fighting in this region.

When the general spotted his counterpart, in thecompany ofonly four other soldiers, making sweeps and bringing down his Silla countrymen, Sung-Ho whispered to himself:

“You are mine!” - and he beckoned his personal company, made of ten strong horsemen, to follow him.

The man in the tiger helmet noticed the retinue of raiders coming fast in his direction and he knew he became their target. Putting a stop to his onslaught he changed his direction and retreated with his men towards a small grove.

“The coward is running away, faster men, faster!” - urged Sung-Ho as he followed, across the battlefield and through the grove until they came into a clearing, giving way to the rim of the ancient forest, guarding the area. He found his path blocked by twenty more of his enemies. The face under the tiger helmet grinned at him while congratulating himself for having lured this foolish general into his trap. He took his 4 soldiers and returned to the battlefield, not before uttering foreign words, telling general Sung-Ho that he left him in good company.

Sung-Ho found himself outnumbered two to one. He cursed himself for being so cocky and distancing himself from the open field and his troops. At least he will go down fighting.

His enemies, on their horses, confidently launched at him and his fighting party, swords at a ready, as Sung-Ho and his men advanced forward, in a tight-knit formation. Hitting left and right, the metal loudly clanged rammed against the edge of the enemy’s sword, or across the plaque metal plates, scratching their eardrums, and igniting sparks. One by one, all the raiders got knocked down off their horses, in their clash, and continued fighting on the ground.

Sung-Ho had to fend off two enemy soldiers at once until he was violently shoved back. Quickly enough he regained his balance, and stroke one advancing foe with the hilt of his sword and hit the other with the pommel. Thinking he barely got out of this assail, he came to find the imminent approach of another enemy blade, coming fast at his head. All he could do was use his hand to protect his face as he tried to dodge. Not fast enough though.

The hit left him with a gaping wound on his eyebrow, and on his hand. Blood came gushing out, blinding his left eye and the metallic savour filling his mouth. His opponent grinned at him, seeing himself victorious, and getting ready to strike again.

Suddenly, a loud shout was heard from the direction of the battlefield and Sung-Ho knew there was only one who was foolish enough to follow him without orders and in a dire situation such as this. His commanderin chief. Those shouts distracted his opponent long enough and allowed for Sung-Ho to lunch his sword at the men’s throat.

Not waiting to see the outcome of the hit, Sung-Ho signalled his men to regroup.

The chief commander, rushing on his horse, galloped through two of the gathered enemy soldiers, coming at him ready for an assault. The speed of his blows stunned the men and left holes in their chain armour, blood oozing out.

Among his entire regiment of soldiers, Sung-Ho never saw anyone react as fast and with such killer instincts, as his commanderin chief. It was one of the reasons why he named him in that position though he was 10 years younger than himself. That, together with the fact that he knew the man since he was a young boy, and he could trust him with his life.

The young commander effortlessly slid out of his saddle, not waiting for his horse to stop, and came to join his general’s fighting party.

“Commander, sometimes I wonder if you are the bravest man I know or plain crazy.” - General Sung-Ho gave him a nod.

“Looking at the situation you are in, my general, I think you need “crazy” right now!” - he replied, smirking and taking a fighting position.

Looking around they were still outnumbered, and their enemies were regrouping as well.

“My men, tonight we dine together. Either in my tent or with the gods!” - said Sung-Ho, taking a glance at his soldiers. But his eyes glinted seeing the woodland behind them. The gears of his brain were turning, and a plan took shape as he asked of his companions:

“Friends, are you ready for a game of hide-and-seek?”

His men grinned at him and grunted in unison, knowing what their general was talking about. They practised a lot of fighting strategies within their company, so on the general’s mark, they all turned around, and started running for the trees.

Their group split into pairs, each group running in a different direction. The general pared up with his commander, as they made themselves unseen behind the overhanging branches.

What remained of their enemies looked at the men running, puzzled. Not having time to plot a strategy of their own, they followed suit, splitting up as well.

Divide and conquer was yet another lesson the general was fond of.

Running away could be considered a disgraceful option, but none of them went too far. Instead, they took shelter behind the moss-covered trees and bushes and waited for the enemy to show their faces. This strategy allowed them to deal with a smaller number of foes and have the advantage of an ambush.

General Sung-Ho and his commander concealed themselves, one lying low under a scrub, and the other behind and old and hollow tree trunk.

Not long had passed before a group of three enemy soldiers were approaching their scene. At the right moment, jumping from behind the tree, the young commander drew their attention, taunting them:

“Did you miss me, fellas? I sure missed you!” - and he blew a kiss in their direction, mocking them.

This distraction was enough for Sung-Ho to jump one of the soldiers and made a slice under his armpit, tearing through the soft spot in his armour. He then used his victim’s body as a human shield to defend against another incoming hit. Now their numbers were even.

Sung-Ho stepped back, not paying attention to the mud sticking to his feet, appearing to retreat, luring one of the opponents to make the first move. When the sword was swung in his direction, he dodged and slid his blade over the man’s thighs making him fall on his knees, in the wet soil, lamenting out loud. There is no room for mercy when fighting to the death, and Sung-Ho sunk the sharp tip of his sword in the man’s collarbone, watching him in the eyes, as the only act of grace and respect he could give.

Looking in his commander’s direction, to see how he was faring, all he could hear was his man teasing his rival, playing cat-and-mouse, going round and round the tree:

“Now you see me!” - said his commander, playfully hitting the soldier with the tip of his sword.

“Now you don’t!” - and he went unseen behind the tree trunk.

Watching the scene, the general could barely abstain from laughing.

“Commander, don’t play with your enemy! I thought you already learned this lesson. Or maybe you need my help?” - asked Sung-Ho catching his breath after the exertion from fighting.

“No way you are taking my fun away from me, general!” and the commander suddenly turned to face his already enraged adversary, gifting him a sword through his stomach. He gently put his human plaything down, enjoying the gurgling sounds coming from his throat.

Sung-Ho whistled a familiar sound and waited for the rest of his companions to get to them. He was relieved they were all in one piece as they appeared in pairs, following their general’s hum to find their way through the forest. His strategy, and all the practice run they had together, ensured their success.

Having the group reunited, they joyfully saluted each other. But Sung-Ho had a bone to pick with one of them. He gripped the back of the head of his chief commander and squeezed hard, making the young man grimaced. In a teacher-like manner, he brought the young man’s head to bump with his and said in a condescending tone:

“I left you in charge of the battle. Why is it so hard for you to follow my orders? I could have you whipped. You stupid, brave, fool!” - and saying these last words he launched in an affectionate hug.

“Their army started to retreat, general, and we already subdued the rest. It was getting boring out there.” - said the young man feeling annoyed at his general’s tone, in front of the rest of their comrades.

Sung-Ho went by acknowledging each of his men for their bravery.

“I am sorry gentlemen if you made your plans with the gods, but tonight I can only offer you the mere comforts of my tent. How should we celebrate?”

“Good Food!” - answered one of his men, who’s armour barely fit him.

“Lots of Drinks!” - said loudly a hefty soldier, towering high above all his other companions.

“Randy women!” - shouted louder the young commander and making all men around him cheer and pat him on the back.

That night they shared all the joys of being alive, in the same way they faced the dangers of being alive, and part of the army. Together.

As they made their way out of the clearing and back on the battlefield, where his soldiers were gathering up the prisoners and counted their dead, General Sung-Ho took in the outcome of the fight. They lost some men, and he did not snatch his principal target. But at least the enemy was held at bay. And he got the chance to fight another day. He had work to do. Unsettling news was coming to him from the northern front. Yet another chance to make the most of his military and strategic ingenuity, and make others blather about how lucky he was for being so foolish.

However, Lady Luck had a better sense of whom to give an upper hand to. She never favoured the fools. She always favoured the brave!

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