Of Honor and Justice

 

It was a cool winter morning as the young couple, Kuo Shao and Kuo Yun, held each other close, watching their best friend, Chu Yuan, flounce about in the snow with their young son.  This happy spectacle nearly made them forget all the troubles that plagued the country this winter: the devastating war between the Han and the invading Ching army, the famine spreading through the land, and the possibility of a draft.  They watched and laughed as little Kuo Jing fell head over heels into a snowdrift and was plucked out looking like a snowman. 

Suddenly, their reverie was shattered by the thunder of hoof beats and a blast of a horn too close for comfort.  A voice with a decidedly foreign accent was heard, “Attention villagers: This is the Ching army of General Chiang Zhu Meng.  If you surrender now and assemble in the town square, you will not be harmed.”  The young couple and their friend glanced nervously at each other and hurriedly made their way to the town square.  Slowly, the entire town shuffled their way into the square and crowded together in a mass, facing the unwelcome stranger.  Moments later, a man dressed in the full regalia of a commander astride a jet black stallion, majestically rode in.  He was very young for a general, probably not much older than Kuo Shao.  He was the youngest son of the Ching king, very intelligent but also very spoiled.   He surveyed the crowd austerely and his first thought was that this was another crowd of useless, cowardly peasants.  But then he noticed a beautiful woman with raven black hair and a pale complexion, huddling close to two young men and clutching a baby boy in her arms.  He decided immediately that he would have that woman, thereby dooming this town.  His decision made, he spun about and without a word, rode away from the village.  There was an audible sigh of relief as the villagers returned to their homes, believing that their simple way of life would not be disturbed. 

            That night the general returned with fifty soldiers, all clad in black.  They stopped just outside the village and notched their bows with arrows that had been smeared with pitch at the point.  The torch bearer went down the line, igniting each arrow.  At the general’s signal, fifty arrows arced into the air, lighting up the night like a fireworks spectacular.  Many found their mark among the thatched roofs of the peasant homes.  Quickly, the soldiers stole into the town and were waiting with death as the panicked peasants rushed out of their burning homes.  One farm on the far edge of town away from the other houses, however, was intentionally neglected.  This was the home of Kuo Shao and Kuo Yun.  Everyone in the house was awoken by the screams of the townspeople and the crackling of fire.  With horror, they saw the night lit up in a garish orange, smoke enveloping the countryside, but even more alarming was the presence of black figures all around the front of their home.  Kuo Shao immediately took command of the situation, instructing Chu Yuan, “Take Kuo Jing and Kuo Yun and leave through the back by way of the fields.  Return to your home and if I survive, I promise I will join you soon.  But if not, please take care of my wife and son.  Do not, under any circumstances, return to this village to look for me.”  With a hug and kiss for his wife and son, he bade them leave.  Once alone, he took down from the wall the ancestral spear and an old shield and made ready to fight for his life.

            Chu Yuan and Kuo Yun rode as fast as their mounts would take them and soon reached the outskirts of a dense forest.  Chu Yuan helped Kuo Yun dismount and told her to hide in the forest and await his return.  He was going back to the village.  With that, he leaped astride his steed and galloped away. 

A feeling of dread and foreboding entered his heart as he approached the burning town.  The streets were empty of living souls, but the dead were gruesomely strewed about.  The heat was becoming nearly unbearable but Chu Yuan would not stop until he discovered the fate of his friend.  He flinched but would not look away when he finally found the still form of Kuo Shao.  Kuo Shao was still clutching the spear in his hands and a pool of blood had collected around his body for he had been pierced by multiple arrows from the back.  It was obvious that the general had not fought honorably, cutting Kuo Shao down without giving him any chance.  Chu Yuan kneeled sobbing next to his friend, apologizing for leaving him, giving vent to the grief of the injustice of war, promising to take care of his wife and child.  Remembering his duty to his friend’s last wish, he quickly got up and laid his friend’s body inside the burning home, promising to pray for his soul at the nearest temple, and quickly remounted and left, tears streaming down his cheeks all the way. 

            The forest was eerily silent when he returned.  Kuo Yun and Kuo Jing were nowhere to be seen.  He searched all around where he had left the pair and discovered two sets of hoof prints, leading in different directions.  He followed the set that led into the forest, hoping that perhaps Kuo Yun had ridden farther inwards in order to hide from some new danger.  As he followed this path, he heard the soft cry of a child in the distance.  Relieved that he was going in the right direction, Chu Yuan increased his pace and nearly rode right by Kuo Jing.  Kuo Jing was sitting by the side of the path, hiding in the underbrush, alone.  Chu Yuan quickly scooped up the little boy and turned around to return from whence he came.  As he did so, he asked, “Kuo Jing, where is your mother?”  Kuo Jing replied, “A man took Mother, but I hid here because Mother told me to.”  “A man?” Chu Yuan exclaimed, “What did he look like?  Where did he go?”  A black man,” Kuo Jing returned.  The man in black … the general!  When Chu Yuan reached the split in the hoof prints, he followed the other set.  They led out of the forest and towards the enemy camp.  Chu Yuan knew it was futile to try and get Kuo Yun back now, he would only succeed in getting himself and the boy killed.  Sadly, he hugged the little boy closer to him, and headed toward his own home, in another village far away.

*          *          *

            Eight uneventful years passed, and Kuo Jing was eleven.  He had grown up as a normal child, believing Chu Yuan was his uncle and his parents had both passed away in an accident.  Little did he know how his life would change when Chu Yuan revealed the truth.  That evening, after both had returned from their work in the fields, Chu Yuan told Kuo Jing the entire story.  He was furious at Chu Yuan for hiding this information from him but mainly at the man that had deprived him of his parents!  He vowed right then and there that he would avenge his father’s death and save his mother from the general.  Chu Yuan cautioned however, that he was only eleven years old and that it would take hard work and training before he would even have the opportunity to confront a man accomplished in the martial arts like the general.  Chu Yuan, lowering his voice, whispered the story of the master of the wood, a legendary teacher of the martial arts.  Chu Yuan had once begun training with one of the master’s disciples but was deemed unfit for martial arts.  The master sees all and hears all in his forest home, and even then, more than ten years after he had left, Chu Yuan still spoke of him in a whisper, afraid that somehow, he could hear their conversation.  Kuo Jing immediately resolved to seek out this legend and study with him.  One week later, despite the protests of Chu Yuan, he set off alone in search of this master. 

He traveled for several months, stopping at farms along the way to work for food and money when the need arose.  All in all, Kuo Jing was a very resourceful boy for an eleven-year-old.  Finally, he reached the home of this elusive master and begged him to train him as a student.  He began by training under one of the master’s older students.  He was worked to exhaustion every day learning the basics and endurance.  After two years, Kuo Jing had become more accomplished than his teacher, but he still had not seen or spoken to the master since his first day.  However, unbeknownst to Kuo Jing, the master had been watching his progress and decided that the time was right for him to begin his real training.  For ten years, Kuo Jing ate, drank, slept, and lived at the feet of his master.  Not only did he become an accomplished martial artist, he was also instilled with values that went beyond fighting.  Even though his skills came by his own hard work, no one made it this far without some God-given talent.  He now had a natural advantage over all other human beings but the only result was an increased responsibility as a member of society.  He must not use his skills for his own personal gain but for the greater good of all people.

*          *          *

 

Once again, Kuo Jing was on his own.  This time he was much better prepared to take care of himself and consider avenging his father’s death.  He really had no idea how to go about finding this general and so he began by enlisting in the Han army.  Because of his excellence in the fighting arts, he was chosen as one of the elite, personal protectors of the high commander of the Han army.  He very quickly proved his worth on the battlefield and became the one of the most trusted soldiers in the army.  He rose through the ranks quickly; less than two years had passed when he was given a command of three-hundred men and a position at the front lines.  Finally, the day he awaited arrived; he met the general in black in battle.  A prudent man, the general in black did not ride at the front of his men but stayed behind to direct the flow of the battle. 

That night, Kuo Jing snuck out alone into the enemy camp to do some reconnaissance.  He rode to the edge of the camp and proceeded inwards on foot.  The perimeter guards were not too hard to avoid and the general’s tent was easy to spot, the large one in dead center.  Surprisingly, there were two figures asleep in the tent and one appeared to be a woman.  Could it be Kuo Jing’s mother?  Kuo Jing could not leave without finding out so he crept to the tent flap and slowly and gently drew it open.  He found himself gazing upon a woman, aging gracefully, whose resemblance to him was unmistakable.  He stood there, frozen, as the moonlight illuminated the face of his sleeping mother.  Meanwhile, the general, a light sleeper and attuned to everything going on around him, had awoken to find a youth standing at the entrance to his tent.  The general lay still, pretending to be asleep and reached for the dagger that he always kept by his bedside, preparing to spring at the intruder.  Still Kuo Jing stood oblivious to the general’s awakening.  It wasn’t until just before the general pounced that Kuo Jing’s finely tuned senses from years of training kicked in, and he reacted just in time to save his life. 

He quickly grabbed the sleeping form of his mother and ducked out of the tent, running out of the camp, remounting his horse, and riding towards the edge of the forest.  As much as he wanted to challenge the general, it would be his doom to fight in the middle of the enemy camp.  As expected the general immediately followed, but luckily for Kuo Jing, he did not bring reinforcements.  Kuo Jing left his mother inside the forest and strode out to meet the man he had so often dreamed about fighting.  This match was one to be witnessed.  The two men were as even as could be for both were equally trained in the martial arts.  Kuo Jing, though inexperienced, was young, quick, and energetic; the general was battle scarred and toughened but older.  The two matched blow for blow, kick for kick and for hours, they circled and jabbed neither gaining on the other.  Dawn was fast approaching and the general’s energy began to lag, mistakes beginning to manifest themselves and openings beginning to appear for Kuo Jing.  He exploited these openings with remarkable skill and soon began to overwhelm the general. 

Finally, he had beaten the general to the ground, injured, bleeding, but still alive.  It was then that he revealed his name, birth, and reason for coming here; but he did not finish him off.  Instead, Kuo Jing stripped the nearly unconscious general of all means of identification, hoisted him onto an extra horse, and sent him to the nearest village to begin a new life as a peasant.   Kuo Jing was finally reunited with his mother and spent hours talking to her about his life since her disappearance.  The war ended soon afterwards because without the general in black goading the war on, a peace agreement was reached between the two countries.  Kuo Jing was released from his service to his country and he returned home to live with Chu Yuan and his mother happily ever after.