The sword struck him once again, and he winced as the blade made contact with his upper arm, digging deeper into his flesh and scaling his bone. He heard the cracking sound before he felt the pain, and the warrior in him marveled at the assailant’s martial arts skills and swordsmanship. He knew then that whoever he is, this man is more than just the typical goons who hang around his father, willing to carry out his evil deeds in return for whatever scraps he threw at them. Usually, those goons were nothing against his more experienced skills, but this time he has met a formidable enemy, and for a moment he wondered if he would survive this fight.
The sword struck again, this time deepening the wound and drawing out more blood. Perhaps not.
The sword continued to slash at his torso; the sound strangely familiar to his ears—it is the sound he heard daily on the training ground, as his men sharpened their swords against a whetstone, waiting for the incoming war which would eat their bodies alive and consume their souls.
Realising how deeply wounded he is, his assailant smirked, that old scar on the left side of his cheek moving like the ripple of a lake disturbed by a fallen leaf. His attention shifted somewhere else, and Byeong In forced himself to stand up one more time. Grabbing his broken sword from the ground, he gritted his teeth and ignored the pain.
We’re not done yet, you bastard!
He raised his feet and tripped the man before he could make a move towards So Yong. The man toppled over from the unexpected attack, his face about to explode with fury.
Byeong In did not waste his chances and began stabbing at the mystery man with every last ounce of strength he has left.
Why? Didn’t think a dying man could hurt you, did you? Byeong In grinned in satisfaction as the man turned back his attention towards him.
Don’t look back, So Yong-ah!
Kim Byeong In regretted many things during his short life on earth.
He regretted not voicing out his feelings for So Yong during all those years they walked beside each other, when she was his alone, before adulthood arrived and reality tore them apart, taking with it whatever romantic illusions he had ever harboured deep inside him. He had always known she was destined to become the future Queen, but despite that, sometimes he imagined her as his own, as much as he is hers.
He had always belonged to her. The thought that she could also belong to another is a bitter medicine for him to swallow.
“Orabeoni, hurry up!” So Yong paused in her steps and looked back, her brows furrowed in infuriation.
He smiled against her impatience, anticipating the arguments coming next. “Why such rush? The fair wouldn’t grow legs and run away to the mountains, So Yong-ah.”
Her arms akimbo, she pouted, her lips a rosebud in early spring, and her cheeks puffed out like the warm pumpkin buns that he enjoyed in the morning during winter.
“Hong Yeon said the merchants display different items at different times of the day. What if we miss an exquisite hairpin bought by another lady if we arrive late?”
“Then I shall track that lady down and offer her more money for the hairpin, until she chooses to release it to me.”
“What if they run out of ingredients and there is only one bunggeo-ppang left at the stall?”
“Then I shall purchase the last bunggeo-ppang and watch you enjoy it to your heart’s content.”
“What if—what if..”
“What if what?” He knew better than to push her buttons, but seeing how flushed her face becomes the more infuriated she is, he could not help himself and began to tease her more.
“What if what, So Yong-ah? Losing the argument already?”
He could tell she was busy racking her brains for another worthy comeback. She makes a formidable opponent; her verbal strikes as deadly as the venom of a mountain snake when she is all riled up.
“What if—what if the King refuses to marry me and I am shunned by every other man in Joseon because I am His Majesty’s discarded fiancée? What then? Would you take responsibility for that? Because we were late to the fair and the new hairpin that I wanted to wear when meeting His Majesty for the first time were sold to another lady? Would you?”
“Speechless now, are you not? I knew it, Lord Kim wasted his gold nuggets hiring all those renowned tutors to teach you—when you cannot even defeat me in arguments. Hah! I could hear your tutors lamenting on their efforts at trying to educate you, I bet they—”
“Yes, I would take responsibility for you, Kim So Yong.”
“…Don’t joke around like that, Orabeoni. Others might think you really meant what you said.”
“But I was not—”
“Do you want to get beheaded? For trying to steal the King’s betrothed?”
“But I said—”
“Come on now, we’re already late as it is, you ought to buy me two—no! Make that three hairpins!” She giggled and ran ahead, the blood-red ribbon tied around her braid flapping in the wind, teasing him all the more.
He pondered upon her retreating back for a while, knowing very well that if he chooses to run after her, he would only be able to grasp the ghost of a ribbon tying them together, for she has given the red ribbon to another.
Still, his feet moved on their own accords, and he ran after her, one hand holding his gat in place, as his laughter joined hers in the late autumn breeze.
But is it really stealing? When I was the one who knew you first?
He regretted not chasing after So Yong that rainy night. His pride bruised from what he thought was her rejection, he rode away from the capital and wished her well on what should have been her happiest day. Had he known her misery would have driven her to throw herself into the lake, he would have never allowed her to leave his side that fateful night, no matter how deep her blade of rejection continued to hurt him.
She kept talking about the King more frequently when the time for her to present herself at the palace loomed close. Her face shone with ungilded expectations, expectations he knew he would never be able to fulfill. Born an orphan of questionable origins, he had no knowledge of his real family. Lord Kim said he came from a noble family down south. But he was left with no worldly possession of his own and had Lord Kim not adopted him as his own, he would probably be fighting to survive somewhere on the streets or become part of a bandit gang.
He knew he doesn’t have much to offer to So Yong, but still, he yearned for her. He remembered her as a lonely child; the peculiar girl who would often disappear on rainy days and caused the entire household to look for her. He prided himself on always being the one to find her. The servants called him 'Lady So Yong’s Keeper'. Truth is, he knew all the places So Yong would hide in. Because they were all his hiding places.
“Orabeoni, how far must we go?” She asked, her tiny hands still clasped tight within his sunburned ones.
“Patience, So Yong-ah. We’re nearly there.” He continued to lead her deeper into the forest.
“But we’ve walked for so long, and I’m growing tired, Orabeoni.”
“Nearly there—hold on a little bit more.”
“But I’m scared—”
“What are you scared of? I am here, am I not?”
“But even you cannot fight evil spirits, Orabeoni. I overheard Father talked about how this forest is haunted.”
“I would never let anything hurt you—humans or ghosts.”
“Is that a promise?”
He smiled back at her, reached out one hand to pat her hair. “ I promise.”
Later, her eyes widened as she marveled at the little fort he has made in the forest.
“Orabeoni..what is this? Where are we exactly?” Her fingers trailed the bamboo stands, gauging their strength.
He shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant about it. “My hiding place.”
“Your hiding place?”
“Who are you hiding from? Did someone bully you? I’ll tell father and have him—"
“I just come here when I become sad, or…”
“Or whenever I miss my mother.”
“…I miss my mother too. There is a drawing of her, drawn long before she carried me in her womb. Father hangs it in his study, sometimes he talks to her, and I think he misses her too..do you also have a drawing of your mother, Orabeoni?”
“No, afraid I don’t. If she were alive, I don’t think I would even recognise her. I have no idea how she looks like, So Yong-ah.”
She began crying then, deep sobs racking her small frame as she struggled to control herself.
“Why are you crying? Are you hurting somewhere?”
“What is wrong then? So Yong-ah, take some deep breaths and tell me what’s wrong.”
“I just feel so sad..”
“Why do you feel such sorrow? Were you reminded of your mother again?”
“Nooooo..” She wailed, her fingers digging against her damp cheeks, trying to brush her tears away. She knew that if she continues to cry, he would grow sad too. He always did.
He took her hands in his own, before drying her tears with the sleeves of his cloth.
“Then why? Tell me.”
“I..I just feel so sad…for you.”
“I..feel so sad for you, Orabeoni.”
She cried for a long time then, uncontrollable sobs that grew into a storm of sadness and misery, and he said nothing, for he did not know what to say at that moment. Nothing he uttered could calm her down, so he said nothing and held her, patting her back and letting her cry for him.
“So Yong-ah. You can come here anytime you’re sad.”
“But I thought it’s your hiding place..”
“It is..but what is mine is also yours. Come anytime.”
That was how he came to love her, and throughout the years, his affection kept growing beyond that of a cousin brother towards his younger sister. She had cried for him numerous time since then, each time he was hurt and could not cry for himself, she would shed tears for him instead, her silent tears a balm for his own lonely soul.
Once, he fell from the persimmon tree while trying to pluck some ripe persimmons for her.
“It is all my fault, Lord Kim. Please don’t be mad at him—Orabeoni is hurt because of me.” She shed tears of guilt and regret outside his door, as he screamed in agony while the healer reset his bone back into its place.
He counted three full moons without her presence, until one day he made up his mind to search for her, once he could walk without the crutches. She refused to see him and ran to hide in her room the moment she heard of his visit.
“So Yong-ah..” He called out against her closed chamber.
“Kim So Yong, are you hiding from me?” Only silence greeted him, but he knew she was listening.
“I can walk again—in case you are wondering how I am doing lately.”
Still no answer from her.
“You know how quickly I recover from a fall, don’t you? I gulped down all those nasty looking medicines they brewed for me, and I practice walking with the crutches daily.”
“I thought you would come and visit me—read to me or even annoy me with your constant rambling.”
“Did Hong Yeon not pass you my letters? I paid her good silver coins to deliver those letters to you.”
“So Yong-ah…you—do you think I have become some kind of a monster now? Because of my broken leg?”
“Why did you refuse to see me? Have I done something wrong?”
Further silence greeted his growing frustration.
He released a heavy sigh, confused and angry now. “Seems like I would have to return now, since you won’t even talk to me.”
He counted five steps before the door slid open, and her face peeked from the opening.
He smiled, his anger dissipating like a blot of ink on a piece of paper. He rushed to her side, like a moth drawn to a flame.
“Orabeoni, you were hurt because of me.” Her voice grew softer with each word, unsure and full of self-blame.
“So Yong-ah..you did nothing wrong.” He cupped her face in his palms, searching into her eyes.
“But you were in pain. I heard Lord Kim reprimanding Father because of what happened to you. Wasn’t it painful for you?”
“It did not—”
“Don’t lie to me, Orabeoni. We promised to be truthful to each other, always.”
“It hurt so badly I thought I would die.”
She cried again then, tears running down her face in regret.
“Do you hate me now, Orabeoni?”
“You do, don’t you?”
“So Yong-ah, why would I hate you?” His face clouded in confusion, he struggled to follow her train of thoughts.
“Because I keep causing you pain. And you get into all sorts of trouble with Lord Kim because of me.”
“Go ahead, you can hate me. I’ll understand.”
“Stop this nonsense, Kim So Yong. I don’t hate you.”
“No. But I am angry with you—for thinking that I would hate you for anything. I’m leaving now, Kim So Yong. Don’t come after me.”
“Orabeoni, wait for me!”
“Oraeboeni, I said I’m sorry!”
“Orabeoni, how long are you going to be sulky like this?”
The winter wind blew in between the trees and Byeong In shivered. He could feel the chill slowly spreading to his bones.
His eyelids felt heavy, and the sharp pain in his side has subsided to a dull throb, as blood continued to flow from his body, drawing a ruby river against the weather-beaten leaves. He has seen fallen men all the time, and he knew when he was about to become one.
An owl screeched from somewhere north, and pregnant clouds rumbled above the forest canopy. It will rain, soon. Very soon. He began to count then, wilting his time while waiting for death in the loneliness of the woods.
Dainty footsteps approached him. They seemed familiar, somehow. As if he has chased after those footsteps all his life.
Fine silk the colour of a robin’s egg swathed against his fingers, drawing stark contrast against the dead leaves covering the ground.
He tried to raise his head to look at the stranger, but his head felt so heavy, as if someone had tied his neck to a huge rock and all he could do is look down, not up.
A familiar scent engulfed his senses—of azaleas in full bloom during summer, and he was transported for a moment to the happy days of his childhood, running after a girl who would disappear into the field of silver grass during a game of hide and seek.
“So Yong-ah! Wait for me!”
Her laughter trailed behind her, as she ran ahead of him, her face lifted upwards to catch the sun rays.
“Try and catch me if you can, Orabeoni!”
He tried again, trembling with the effort. But all he saw was a silhouette against the late evening sun. A silhouette so familiar—where have I seen her before?
The figure kneeled before him, their knees meeting, and her hands covered his frozen ones. Warmth spread across his body, warming him up from the inside and lulling him into sleep.
He fought against the sleepiness and tried to focus on her face. Her lips the color of a wild rose. Her nose, small and dainty, the tip blushing from the cold. Her eyes, dark orbs to rival the full moon that hang in the midnight sky.
A smile broke across her face, a sad one. Moisture flooded her eyes as she raised one hand to lift his jaw, their eyes meeting.
She said nothing, just a tiny nod, as her grasp tightened against his own.
“Is it really you?”
Blood spilled from his mouth; and he began to choke trying to get the next words out.
“Sshh..don’t try to speak, Orabeoni.” Her voice turned into a soft whisper, soothing his frazzled emotions.
“I..I knew you would make it.”
“I did—thanks to you, Orabeoni.”
He smiled, swallowed a mixture of what must be his own saliva, blood and tears altogether.
“Did you…did you know? The secret behind our hide and seek?”
“It took me a long while..but I figured it out.”
“You were always so excited, you never realised what I did. I…I wanted to hide it from you, still..”
“Why did you do that, Orabeoni?”
“I wanted you to win.”
“Is that what you thought? That I like winning?”
“You were always so happy—you would brag to all the servants about beating me at hide and seek.”
“Were you not happy? Because I let you win?”
She cupped his face then, her warm palms chasing the frost away from his skin.
“Orabeoni, I was happy—but not because you added another ten seconds when it was my turn to hide.”
“Because you always play with me. Let’s play again—shall we?”
“..I..I’m too tired, So Yong-ah..”
“I’ll hide this time. All you have to do is close your eyes…please, Orabeoni?”
He smiled, for she knew he could never refuse her.
“One..last..time.” His voice trembled with each word, as he struggled to get them out.
“As you wish—Orabeoni. Now, close your eyes and start counting.”
“Don’t..don’t hide too far. I might not be able to find you this time.”
“You’ll find me—you always did, Orabeoni.”
“So Yong-ah…it is cold out here.”
“I know, Orabeoni. I know…”
“I’ve never been this cold in my life.”
“Ssshh, close your eyes now. Remember that field at the foot of the hill?”
“Silver grass..where the silver grass grows?”
“Yes. Where the silver grass grows. I’ll be hiding there. Will you come and find me?”
He was too tired to even speak, so he grasped her fingers and nodded his head. I will. Always.
Somewhere in the field of silver grass, she is waiting for him. And he will go find her, as he had always done every time she disappeared.
There were many things in his short life that Kim Byeong In regretted. But loving and cherishing Kim So Yong was not one of them.