[ 一 ]
Illeia, 28th year of King Gwangmu’s reign
The moon was high, and in the village all was quiet. Most of the people had retired indoors and few remained awake; mothers mending clothes by candlelight, old men contemplating the stars on their front steps, or in the case of one woman, sorting sage and thyme from her reed basket on her front porch. The herbs had been freshly plucked by her daughter that evening, who had climbed all the way up the far hill.
The woman hummed away as she worked. So engrossed was she in the silence of the night, in the peaceful atmosphere, that when the arrow struck the wooden beam above she let out a shriek loud enough to pierce the heavens. The arrow had hit the wood with such force it was buried up to the feathers of its shaft.
With one hand on her chest the woman detached the folded letter that came with it and took to the streets.
“The Red Clover is here! The Red Clover has arrived!”
Wooden shutters swung ajar. Doors slammed open and candles flickered into existence in thatched houses. The village people shuffled out of their dwellings, all thoughts of sleep banished.
The next arrow hit the house three doors down and its occupant looked up sharply. He gave a loud yell and all heads turned to the roofs.
“There he is!”
“The Red Clover!”
Painted against the black canvas of the night a figure ran, swift. He paid little attention to the noise of the people below him. Dark robes wrapped his body in tight embrace, the material blending seamlessly into the night, and a cloth mask hid all of his face saved his eyes. His footsteps were silent, sure. One could only hear the soft clinking of arrows in the quiver strapped to his back.
Pausing, he nocked an arrow to his bow. His audience gaped as he drew the string taut, his posture arching against the moon, a silhouette bathed in incandescent glow.
The arrow flew and landed in the middle of the earth-packed street. Straw slippers surrounded it from all sides as the villagers amassed, hesitant yet curious. Gingerly, an old man pulled off the letter stuck to the glinting arrowhead. The parchment crinkled as it opened, revealing characters inked in gold on blue, each brush stroke flowing and confident. Up close, the words gave off a distinct flowery aroma. Most of the people were illiterate, but there were young boys who attended school, and one of them was pushed forward now. He took the letter, reading it aloud in prepubescent childish pipes.
“The bear sleeps in winter, but winter has passed. The daffodil blooms in spring, and now spring has arrived. Enemies of The Fifth Column, beware.”
Feverish murmurs spread through the crowd. They looked back up to the roof, mouths open to demand for answers, and that was when they heard it.
The urgent drumming of hooves, and with it – the clattering of armour.
“The Royal Guard!” someone shrieked.
The people fled, abandoning arrow and letter in the middle of the road. Hinges protested loudly as door met frame with a loud bang. Candles guttered out in hasty breaths. The people trembled under their cotton blankets even as they tried to feign sleep.
The horses rode into the street seconds after. Their coats were all various shades of chestnut, with one sole exception. The lead horse was a beautiful white stallion, snorting as he tossed his silver-flecked mane. While the other horses had glossy coats, his looked like it radiated light. While the other horses sported plain tanned bridles, his was inlaid with lapis lazuli; and while the other horses carried lieutenants, he carried a general.
Leather boots hit the road with a thump as the rider descended. Tall enough was he that his head nearly brushed the leaves of the willow tree growing by the street. In the light of the nearest torch his face was thrown into jarring clarity. There was a brutishness about him, accentuated by his thickset frame, though the weariness of his eyes suggested he had not slept well in awhile. Weeks’ old stubble adorned his chin.
He picked up the arrow, turning it over in his fingers. When he saw the blue-dyed feathers he let out a snarl, lips curling back in contempt.
“Scout the area! Aim for the roofs!”
The soldiers separated, trooping down alleyways and side streets. They terrorized houses, throwing doors open with ruthless force and ransacking the interior in their search. Ignoring the protests of the common-folk, they wrenched open shutters and shook out blankets. Archers lined the streets, bows steady as they watched the roofs with a wary eye.
An arrow from above struck a soldier, the blue letter embedding itself in his chest as he fell.
“Fire!” the captain yelled.
In retaliation, a dozen arrows flew from ground to roof. The Red Clover ducked, narrowly avoiding an arrow from piercing his eye. He ran, and below, the King’s men ran with him, always keeping track of him from the streets, never letting him out of sight. In front, the line of roofs ended, and there was a gap eight feet wide between the last house and the next one. With no hesitation whatsoever the masked stranger hurtled toward it, and he jumped.
Below, the arrows flew upward in a single, tidal arc. A beautiful firework, patterned from metal.
The Red Clover cleared the leap, but he stumbled as he landed, and a grimace escaped from his lips. An ugly stain began spreading through the fabric around his left leg. His pace never faltered however, and very soon he had disappeared into the night and out of sight.
Ten minutes later the Royal Guard gathered back in the village square. Seeing the General, the captain saluted tersely.
“Our deepest apologies, General Ki! We have lost the Red Clover. However, his left leg has been injured by an arrow, and that should weaken him for some time.”
The General nodded, curt. “It is alright. With a wound, he will be more vulnerable to us, and easier to identify.” He looked around at the worn faces of his men. “You have all done well tonight. Now, we rest.”
The Royal Guard gathered in formation, and with a steady clopping of hooves they moved out, leaving only the agitated villagers behind to gossip among themselves.