Generals, this is what’s going to happen.
The King has sent out a strength of a hundred and twenty thousand men for this war.
Such great multitude is for the great cause of retrieving the lost princess, as well as to save the entirety of Joseon. While the King, along with the entire Imperial Household, shall evacuate safely to Ganghwa Island, we shall uphold the defense of our territory—with all our lives.
For all divisions of the army, the general command is to concentrate your defense at the Northern Boundaries, along the Yalu and the Tumen Rivers, where the entire Jurchen Army shall emerge. This is a confirmed location by none other than the great spy, soldier Ahn Jung Joon.
A secret passageway has been located beneath the waterfalls a few kilometers away from their camp, and this is where the first and second division shall concentrate in guarding.
The Jurchen Army taking the highlands will be a disadvantage on our part, especially with us being at the bottom of the huge hill. This is why we should not take camp right beneath the tall hills within the perimeter, but instead, to position all archers on the top of the Eastern hill; though it is the only mountain away from enemy territory, it is the highest among them, even higher than the hills on the opponent’s side. It’s quite an advantage.
Behind that hill shall be our recovering area. For the divisions apart from those who are assigned at the hill, secure your place at the edge of the river. The trajectory of the enemy’s arrows shall not reach you at that distance, but ours will.
Why you ask?
It is because the weather is in favor on our side. The wind currently blows to the north, which will eventually aid our arrows to fly to their territory. Our swordsmen shall likewise have an advantage in this war, so do not hesitate to attack when you hear the signal.
Until you hear the signal, I strictly command the entire army to stay put, and do not attack.
Are there any questions?
After giving his direct instructions, he could see a few of the commanding soldiers raising their hands in reluctance while looking towards each other.
“What is the signal, Yoo-byeongjo?” The bravest one to ask their question quickly voiced out first.
“You’ll be surprised to hear a voice at the top of the mountains,” Yoo Si Jin’s reply made everyone look at each other with wonder of what ‘the voice at the mountains’ truly meant. “You might not understand now, but be wary of that scream. You only get one chance to hear this and take the offensive,”
Everyone nodded, though they still did not get a clear grasp on the instruction.
“Byeongjo,” another commanding officer in the gathering room raised his hand, making everyone look toward his direction, “I cannot help myself but ask. This is a great war we are fighting, but why would you command everyone to wait for the signal?”
Your presence, for the princess’ life. Si Jin had these words ruminating in his mind for quite some time now. Standing up, he answered the officer’s question in a firm, yet slightly uneasy expression.
“A truce has been conducted for us to parley with the other side. Arrangements has also been made, Officer,” Si Jin calmly spoke, although he does not buy this idea himself at all.
In fact, he wished there was some other way to get things settled.
“Before armies meet armies, and even before your sword meets the enemies’ swords, the battle will be first determined by both generals. By me, and the enemy general,” He opened, startling everyone with that unusual yet critical deciding battle. The men had their own way of expressing how appalled they were when they heard it; Ahn Jung Joon, who was standing in the corner of the room, decided to look away, while the others had their eyes widened and their brows furrowed, as though they heard something preposterous and nonsensical.
Seo Dae Young could not believe what he just heard as well, “You would be fighting against Argus? In that state? You’re digging your own grave, don’t you know that? You don’t even know about how that man deals with his foes!”
“Seo-gunkwan, I am disappointed at how you have lost your trust in me this easily. You’re holding me back just like everybody else,”
“You’ll die, Yoo Si Jin!”
“I know that. I know that more than anybody in this room,” His hands balled into fists as he spoke with his grievous, hurting expression. Things have been going haywire, and Si Jin was already having difficulty in juggling one problem at a time, but despite all of that, he wanted everything to be in place, even if it meant putting his life on the line.
He wanted to make sure of something, that at least, even as his days are numbered, he could do something worth the time he had left.
“I’ll make sure that before my life is taken away, she will be saved. And that man will be dead.”
I’ll kill him with my own hands. He said to himself as he wended his way outside the gathering hall, when Dae Young suddenly called him once again.
“Yoo Si Jin, you’re risking too much—“
“Seo Dae Young-ssi,” Hearing his friend call him made him turn back with a frustrated expression, “Doubt me all you want after this war. But for now, as I give my all in this battle, I expect you to give your superior all your trust you can give.”
That response piped down Seo Dae Young, with no words left but his face to express his disagreement.
“Lady Yoon would’ve goaded you not to join the war, but instead she tended your wounds and sent you away,” Si Jin pointed towards his friend’s injured leg, “She trusts you. And I hope you can trust me as well. Now, assemble at the gates, and we leave immediately. We arrive at the North by sundown.” With that, the minister stormed out of the room, leaving everyone behind all concerned, worried but willing.
Dae Young looked around to see everyone slowly making their way out of the hall, packing up the huge terrain map, and taking out their small bags one by one until most of them were out.
Damn it, Yoo Si Jin! Dae Young concked on the table repeatedly.
“You heard the man. We better hurry before the moon rises,” A voice behind him asserted. Dae Young looked around and realized everyone had left except Ahn Jung Joon, who seemed to be taking his own time travelling from the backmost part of the gathering hall towards the opposite side where the door was located. One look at the stealthy soldier and Seo Dae Young could tell that they share the same sentiments at that moment.
“Quit worrying about your friend. He won’t die there,” Jung Joon calmly spoke once more after a few moments of silence in between, “If he does, then I am responsible for it,”
“What do you mean?”
Soldier Ahn crossed his arms approaching the door where Dae Young was standing, “Aside from being Yoo-byeongjo’s guide to the place, the King told me to bring him back if any untoward incident come to pass. However, you don’t have to include yourself in this mission, soldier,”
“I’m responsible to keep him safe as well,”
“You know what Yoo Si Jin-ssi asks from you now, do you not? Apart from being his loyal friend, you must prioritize the princess. That’s what you are supposed to do,” Jung Joon finally spoke, thereafter heading out of the room, leaving Seo Dae Young behind, pondering on what his friend had told him earlier.
Doubt me all you want after this war.
But for now, as I give my all in this battle…
…I expect you to give your superior all your trust you can give.
From where he stood, he saw Yoo Si Jin finally ride his horse, leading the way for a thousand men in the vast assembly field. Behind him were his three other companions: Soldiers Choi Woo Geun, Gong Cheol Ho, and Im Gwang Nam. Two horses stood behind, unoccupied; one of which was Ahn Jung Joon’s, and the other was his.
Behind the leading group were thousands of soldiers riding on their horses, some of them were the skilled swordsmen of the land, while the others were the greatest archers lined up. It’s war that we’re approaching, indeed, the soldier thought as he made his way to his position. Finally reaching the huge group and riding his horse, he looks toward Soldier Choi.
“What did I miss?”
“Five divisions have already left earlier last evening,” Choi Woo Geun spoke, while they watched the whole army head out from their assembly point in groups, “Troops from the Northern Boundaries have also been assembled. They have already received the command from the King to assemble themselves at the North.”
“What about the Eastern Hill?”
“Archers are on their way up the highest hill and we have secured that territory on our side, at least that’s what we could assume at this point in time,” Soldier Choi continued, “However, Yoo-byeongjo gave us further instructions while you were still on your way here. He says he’ll tell us once we have reached our destination. Wait, why are you being inquisitive towards me? You could have asked the minister himself,”
We fought, that’s why. “He’s too busy, and I do not want to meddle when he’s got a hundred and thousand men to handle,” Seo Dae Young shrugged, when of course the truth was that he did not want to talk with his friend after having a little squabble back at the gathering hall.
When it was their division’s time to head out, they all rode their horses out of the vast field and on towards the road that led them to the North. Si Jin’s Main Division, along with the four soldiers and Ahn Jung Joon, took the timesaving and alternative route to the Northern base camp while the planned auxiliary troops travelled using the traditional access road.
Just right before sundown, the Main Division arrived at the base camp.
Yoo Si Jin was impressed at how quickly the soldiers at the Northern Boundaries have responded—all of them were making themselves ready for war. There were tents set up at the back of the hills where he had planned the army to take recovery, ranging from food supply, infirmary, barracks, and many more. The newly-developed cannons were lined up at the opposite edge of the river, while some of them have already been transported on the other side.
As Si Jin rode towards the base camp, he saw the Eastern Hill—the highest hill in the warzone that was, fortunately on their side of the battlefront. From where it stood at the other end of the river, he saw ropes connecting makeshift floating crafts that bridged soldiers to the other side.
“Yoo-byeongjo,” One of the commanding officers called the minister upon his arrival, “The Eastern Hill has been secured by our troops. Archers are in position, and there is a clear sight on what is currently happening on the other side,”
He nodded, his hands gripping onto the jade hairpin he cloaked inside his sleeve, like it was his source of strength when he needed to be appeased, “Any suspicious movements?”
“There was no movement from the Jurchens, daegam.”
“Have you checked on further?”
“Some soldiers have already scouted on the farther East, but there was nothing but a waterfall at its end. The water’s faint because of the harsh weather, and majority of it has become frozen,”
“A waterfall… It’s the secret passageway, is it not?” Hearing this made Si Jin turn his head towards Ahn Jung Joon, who nodded immediately in reply, “It’s good that you have scouted that area, Officer. Advance the first and second division to be on guard at the foot of the waterfall,”
“On the left side of the water form, there is a narrow road that leads up to the high plains,” Jung Joon further explained, “It is a road made by the enemy spies,”
The commanding officer of the Northern boundaries eagerly gave them a salute before heading to the barracks, “I will advise them to go forth immediately,”
Seeing the officer leave the group, Si Jin commanded the five soldiers to join him, along with the first and second divisions of the army. The five of them would not even wonder why their leader has not assigned them to join any of the divisions; they knew Si Jin was up to something with them, but what it specifically was, they still had no clue whatsoever.
“I have read a few confidential annals about the current general of the Jurchens, though these references are those which have only been gathered by Soldier Ahn for the whole duration of his undercover mission,” Si Jin said to them as they towards the ravine on the East, “Since when did Argus become the leading general for the Jurchen Army?”
All the minister could see were clueless stares and raised shoulders. None of them knew about it.
“The first major invasion we have experienced was from the Jurchens, and that incident was from twenty years ago,” Seo Dae Young voiced when he noticed none of them were answering.
“I have been one of the soldiers who were there during the first invasion, Yoo-byeongjo,” Soldier Ahn commented; among the six men, he was the oldest, and therefore knew what had occurred during the past two decades, “Though he wasn’t there during the siege,”
“But did you see his face back when you spied their territory?”
Ahn Jung Joon shook his head, “He covered his face with a mask the whole time. I never got to see him up close, but his voice still rings in my head. There is no doubt that I could recognize that voice of his once we find where they stay,”
“Very well then,” Si Jin and the whole group stopped trudging when they had finally arrived at the foot of the said frozen waterfall. It was a gradual height, and despite having majority of it frozen, there was still a little downpour of water which still made sure that the river was still flowing.
The cold in that location was unbearable, but everyone knew that they had to endure until the signal has been fired. Everybody at that moment had the war minister as their inspiration and encouragement, and there was no room for complaining; if their sick leader can endure the cold, so can they.
After one last glance on the thousands of soldiers gathered at the foot of the waterfall, and after looking high above the sky to see the sky turn from blue to pitch black with the full moon ultimately shining above them, Si Jin let out a smirk. It’s about time.
“You must have been wondering all this time why I have never assigned you to any division,” Si Jin spoke, this time facing the five soldiers, “Something’s telling me there would be a foul play of arrangements, and that Argus would have a bunch of soldiers gathered. Admittedly, I can never do this on my own. I need you to lend me your strength.”
Everyone nodded, “We will go wherever you will go, byeongjo,” Soldier Im replied firmly, while the rest of them nodded in agreement.
“I am glad to hear that from you, but the mission is not about me. It’s about her,” the minister said gravely, “The army is here to fulfill the mission to save the nation, and the six of us are gathered here to save the princess. If anything goes wrong, you stick with the mission of saving her first. It is our top priority.” Si Jin could vividly see Seo Dae Young averting his gaze in disapproval when he said that, but he did not mind it at all.
Seeing the sullen look in his friend’s face, Si Jin immediately called his attention, “Seo-gunkwan. Isn’t this what we both wanted? To be in the battlefront together?”
“This is not how I wanted you to fulfill your dream in becoming a soldier,” He mumbled, “Aish, what else can I do, you’ve always been so stubborn.”
“We can save the squabble later after saving the Princess. I don’t want us to go out there with resentments,” He chuckled, patting Dae Young hard on the shoulder before moving his horse on the front.
After finally having that sense of certainty that he had cleared things out with his friend, Si Jin then faced the whole of the first and second divisions, and he could just feel how every soldier’s heart was beating at that moment—with a perfect collision of delirium and dauntlessness.
So this is what it feels to be at the battlefront—not cooped inside a tent, only getting the upshot of the armed conflict from the men I strategically place in the area of combat. Not just news entering my year and commands coming from my mouth.
It is where I get to wear a heavy armor and have a sword in my possession—not just because I am a military magistrate.
It is where I ride proudly on my horse not only for the reason that I am an official.
It is where I do and have such…because I am a soldier…
…and for the first time, it felt like I had something to fight for. To bet my life on. Something worth winning a victory.
Cannons were already in position, and their swords and spears were firmly kept near their bodies. From afar, he could see a faint light at the top of the Eastern Hill, where the rest of the army were stationed.
They were ready.
“Everyone is now in position and we are prepared. Remember the signal: once all of you hear it, do not hesitate to advance and kill any assailant in sight!” Si Jin yelled at the top of his lungs, giving his final command while lifting his double-edged sword.
“Ye!” The soldiers raised their weapons in response, at the same time made that as their expression of wishing their leader victory. Si Jin heaved one deep breath before Ahn Jung Joon led the way to the secret road up the mountains.
“Up we go, byeongjo,” Jung Joon pointed towards the narrow road that seemed unnoticeable at first glance. Nevertheless, they rode their horses and slowly hiked up one by one.
The hike would’ve been more difficult without their horses. After just five minutes of trudging up in the cold weather, all six of them reached the top of the hill; beside it was a vast estate of wilted trees and evergreens.
“We’re here,” Jung Joon declared once the last of them had already reached the plains.
“Does this place look familiar to you?”
“It’s exactly how it looked like. The cliff must be a few distances away from here,”
“We just need to keep searching for a pathway. No one could possibly trace their steps to the camp without landmarks or—“ true enough, before Yoo Si Jin could even finish, Soldier Choi was quick to observe something strange with some of the tree trunks. The soldiers looked from where they were and saw that indeed, there were markings beneath them.
“There are a few wedges below, byeongjo,” Choi Woo Gun pointed downwards, where there were hidden grazes at the bottom of the tree trunk. One after another, they discover each tree having cuts right above the snow ground, leading them deep within the winter forest.
“Some of the branches of these, they tie them up with cloth,” Another observation came from Soldier Gong, who found this out when he looked up to the moonlit sky, and silhouettes of small strips of cloth were seen flapping with the strong wind.
“Are they planning on getting you lost in the forest?” Dae Young asked, as he watched Yoo Si Jin take a closer look. He then realized that all of the trees which had slivers on its lower trunk also had small strips of cloth tied on one of its branches, he knew.
“When it’s day, they look down,” Yoo Si Jin, looking at the bright full moon, showing the silhouettes of each strip of cloth tied on the branches, “When it’s night, they just look up and the moon guides their way.”
“What does that mean?”
“It won’t matter whether the trees have markings on their trunks or strips on their branches. They’ll lead us to the same destination. It’s just a concept I made on my own, so we still have to be wary,”
“Arasso,” Dae Young said as the slowly made their way to the core of the forest while following the line of trees with strips of cloth tied around one of its branches. The soldiers evenly distributed themselves, guarded each side while Si Jin studied the place carefully. They slowly maneuvered their horses, trudging amidst the thick snow until they heard a voice—a familiar one, for Ahn Jung Joon.
“Full moon, and no one’s still here!”
The loud bellows cadenced from a few meters away, not too close, yet not that far. Jung Joon quickly looked back at Si Jin with an alarmed expression in his face. “It’s him. There’s no doubt about it.” The soldier whisperd quietly.
Everyone was even more alarmed to hear a few other voices and snickers in the background. Si Jin was right—Argus was not alone. It was dark, and none of them could clearly see what was going on, and so they all came up with the decision to finally put their mission to start.
“You’ll hear where the sound comes from with the conversations going on, so we better split up, scatter and surround this place before they even decide on spreading out,” Yoo Si Jin commanded while their group hid behind the huge trees, “Hide yourself in the shadows and make sure we have enclosed the group—“
A sudden whimper from afar distracted Si Jin’s focus from explaining further. He unmistakably knew that voice. It was her.
She was only a few distances away from him.
I have to hurry, “Move to a circle. I could fire the signal anytime now. Go!”
Everyone immediately nodded and stealthily trudged on either side, securi