In the depths of the forest, even the bright full moon cannot light up the path.
Wonbeom and his men use torches most of the way, but when they get closer they are forced to extinguish them. The rebels at the camp will likely have guards on watch, and in the dark forest the torches would be seen from afar. They also slow down their horses as the trail grows rocky and dangerous.
The camp is surrounded by mountains and a river. It was a smart move on their part as there is only one entryway into the camp. It leaves Wonbeom’s team one choice: a quick and efficient attack. They will have to efficiently take out the guards on watch and move on to the rest of the rebels in the camp as quickly as possible.
Wonbeom sends one of his men ahead to scope out the area ahead and bring back any information they need before they begin their assault. The man is one head shorter than the rest of Wonbeom’s men, able to move quickly and stealthily. He used to be a peasant, but he joined the Donghak believers and stuck around even when their rebellion won and disbanded. Wonbeom counts himself lucky to have so many people from the old days still supporting him. And as they had all once lived in camps in the woods, they know the area well.
“They have two people on watch,” their scout reports after coming back. “The trail to the camp is very narrow, so they don’t need many people to keep eyes on the entryway.”
“We need to get rid of both of them at the same time,” Wonbeom concludes. “Prince Yeongpyeong, choose the best archer to assist you. You will take down the guards and the rest of us will quickly enter the camp. Find a higher position to shoot the arrows and back us up.”
And so they begin. The two guards sit by a fire, chatting quietly between themselves without taking their eyes from the road.
But they don’t expect the arrows that fly in their direction from the darkness of the woods. Gyeong-eung’s archers hit their targets precisely, and the guards fall to the ground with arrows in their throats, preventing them from making any loud noises in the agony of death.
Imitating an owl’s sound, Wonbeom gives the signal to approach the camp. They cannot ride in on horseback because of the narrow trail, so they run into the camp on foot.
As they rush into the camp, they find the rebels huddled around a bonfire, in the middle of a late-night supper. It takes the rebels less than a heartbeat’s time to understand what is going on, and they jump to their feet with their swords in hand.
There is a cacophony of clashing metal as both parties combat in sword fight. The rebels alert those who were resting in the tents and soon it’s hard to distinguish who is who in the darkness of the night.
Wonbeom fights off two rebels at the same time; his sword moves fast and each hit of metal on metal reminds him of a melody. It’s like a battle song: he hates it but is marveled by it nonetheless.
Wonbeom knees one of his opponents in the side, and the rebel bends in half, gasping for air. Quickly, Wonbeom kicks a log from the bonfire at the rebel to scald him, before returning his full attention to his other opponent. He hears the agonized scream of the burned rebel, but he cannot care less: it only meant one less person to deal with.
Wonbeom clashes in a series of strikes with his remaining opponent, their swords glistening in the moonlight. The man is larger and more muscular, but Wonbeom is smarter. With a few confident moves, he tricks the rebel into letting his guard down for a moment. Wonbeom quickly deals a lethal blow with a slash of his sword across the enemy’s stomach.
An arrow whizzes past Wonbeom and hits another rebel in the back. Wonbeom turns his head and spots his brother elevated on some stacked crates, shooting his arrows one after another.
Wonbeom looks around at his people fighting furiously and notices a few tents have caught on fire. He feels the sweat running down his temples and his eyes sting from the acrid smoke. Wonbeom hears footsteps behind him and turns to face another rebel for a fight. The rebel’s eyes grow wide with fear, and he drops his sword aside, falling to his knees before Wonbeom.
They finally understand who exactly is attacking them, Wonbeom thinks. He hits the rebel in the head, knocking him out, and moves forward towards another fighter.
More than once Wonbeom notices the rebels give up and beg for their lives as if the conspiracy against the King could be punished with anything other than death. He finds this odd but he must win the fight first; he will think about it later. His brother joins him in the battle, and they fight back-to-back, always looking out to make sure the other was not injured. At one point they even switch opponents mid-fight.
Despite the sudden attack, the rebels fight back well and are able to get organized in a short amount of time. But Wonbeom and his men had weakened their forces a lot with the initial surprise attack, and many of the rebels are quickly demoralized in the face of their impending doom.
The closeness of victory excites Wonbeom. Seeing more and more rebels give up or get wounded beyond the ability to fight back makes him smile like a madman. This is the first full scale battle he has ever experienced. His battle for the throne was mostly calculated, with little fights here and there. But this one is the closest thing he has experienced to a true war.
A victorious cheer rings over the camp when the last rebel is defeated. Those who surrender, wounded or not, get tied up and are forced to sit on their knees with their heads bowed low.
Wonbeom walks past the line of captive rebels with his sword in hand. The blade is covered in blood, and the rebels bow even lower, trying not to draw attention to themselves. Wonbeom stops in front of the rebel he had knocked out earlier, the first rebel he had seen giving up without any fight.
“You, get up.” Wonbeom points his sword at him, and his men pull the rebel up to stand on his feet. “Was there any reason why you surrendered without even trying?”
“I didn’t want to fight,” the rebel whispers, still preferring to look at the ground.
“So you are a coward?” Wonbeom smirks, sheathing his sword back into its scabbard.
“I am not!” The rebel finally lifts his head, his eyes burning in indignation. “Some of us were already planning to leave this place because we do not wish to fight against His Majesty.”
“And I am supposed to believe that?” Wonbeom raises a brow. The rebels could easily be lying to save themselves.
“We joined forces as we wished to fight against the government officials. We believed that they only fought amongst themselves and did not care about the plights of the people,” the rebel passionately explains. “Many people here have lost everything due to corruption… But we see that life in the country is changing now. What our recruiters told us contradicts what we see with our own eyes.”
“Your Majesty.” One of Wonbeom’s men steps forward. “He might be telling the truth. Some of the rebels surrendered when our forces were even and it wasn’t clear who would win.”
“Alright then,” Wonbeom agrees. “You will show us who was ready to leave, as you said. We will consider this possibility when it’s time to make the final decision.” Wonbeom turns to his men with the next order: “Put them in different cells. We don’t want them fighting amongst themselves within our jail.”
“His Majesty’s mercy is boundless,” the rebel wails, bowing low. “But may I add something?” Wonbeom nods, waiting for him to speak. “There are some of us missing. We have a secret way out of the camp. I believe they have probably used it.”
In the back of the camp, there is a narrow and dark pass between two large rocks, wide enough for only one person to go through at a time. Wonbeom shakes his head in frustration; they had not thought about it before the ambush as the passage wasn’t on the map. With all the time that had elapsed during the fight, it would be futile to chase after those who had escaped.
Besides, now is the time to arrest Yul Mu, who has probably just come back home drunk after visiting the kisaeng house.
“Split up,” Wonbeom commands. “One group will escort our prisoners to jail. The other will come with me to arrest Yul Mu. Those who escaped could be with him too, so we must prepare ourselves for possible resistance.”
Wonbeom’s men quickly prepare to take the rebels and leave the encampment. Gyeong-eung comes over to clasp a steady hand on Wonbeom’s shoulder as he continues to mull over the dangers of the escaped rebels.
“Long night. Like in the old days,” Gyeong-eung says with a note of nostalgia. “But back then we just returned to the palace to continue our lonely lives. No one waited for us, unlike now.”
“Since when are you so sentimental?” Wonbeom laughs. Actually, it’s not a fair remark. His brother is always soft when he talks about his love.
“I am glad to finally see you happy,” Gyeong-eung says, smiling. “For some reason, my own happiness burdened me because your marriage was on the brink of collapsing. As your older brother, I’m truly relieved to see things have become better between you and the Queen.”
“Alright, we need to finish all this quickly before you act even weirder,” Wonbeom says, rolling his eyes.
His brother had hated Soyong for so long that the prince’s sudden softness towards her feels almost uncomfortable. But he wishes for them to get along, to be a family. Soyong lost her orabeoni1Orabeoni – how sister refers to her brother in family. whom she cherished so much, and while Gyeong-eung can’t quite fill that void, he can still be her brother as well.
They wrap up everything and finally leave the destroyed camp. The mood in their group is cheerful and he even hears his men start singing an old silly song. When Wonbeom still lived on Ganghwa island, he and Dul Il used to sing a lot while they were working. His foolish friend knows all the inappropriate songs in Joseon, and Gyeong-eung used to scold Wonbeom for learning them too.
His brother had thought that even in exile they must live with dignity, but Wonbeom didn’t see any dignity in being a woodcutter.
We are nothing now, hyeongnim2Hyeongnim – male addressing to the brother.. Why can’t I be like everyone else? Wonbeom had said.
Little did he know that one day the Kim clan would find him and drag to a fancy palace to be their puppet King. And now he is a King and a warrior who protects the stability of the country with full authority.
But the role he loves the most is still being a husband and a father.
His brother is right: coming home to his beloved family is a different feeling. Fighting while knowing someone important is waiting for him makes him stronger. And tonight he showed his best. Because he can’t be any less than the finest when his country and family are at stake.
Their smaller group is already approaching the Hanyang gates. The other group in charge of the prisoners trails far behind because the prisoners travel on foot.
To Wonbeom’s surprise, he spots Director Hong running toward him as soon as he enters the city. His friend looks unusually unkempt: Hong’s hat with the extravagant peacock feather is missing, and his hair and clothes are covered in dirt.
“What happened?” Wonbeom goes cold, fear clutching at his hammering heart. But when he hears Hong’s response, he thinks his heart stops altogether:
“They captured them,” Hong says between gasps of air, an undercurrent of anxiety running through his voice. “Yul Mu took the Queen and Lady Jo Hwa Jin as hostages.”
- 1Orabeoni – how sister refers to her brother in family.
- 2Hyeongnim – male addressing to the brother.