This month of March I’ve been working on Path of the Warrior, the first entry in Book III of the Falcon Chronicle series.
Here is a sneak peek:
We wrestle with memories to find meaning. Without knowledge we live in emptiness, for life and death have no purpose. Memories give sight through the mists of time. Where do I come from and where am I going? The watermarked parchment rustles. I read words written in quill and ink and a man’s soul.
The night was dark and warm as blood. Unseasonably warm, as the maples had not leafed in the courtyard. On nights such as these the tiger walked unheard. Tae Chisun rolled the silk-smooth paper in his hands and tucked it into the message case.
He took the lamp from his table and handed it to his messenger. He did not mind darkness and silence, not when he had his sword and his hands and feet. “Rangdo, run fast, and we may yet preserve our people.”
His student nodded, his thin face sober, and ducked out into the driving rain. Embroidered with black sigils of officialdom, the band tied about his head directed water away from his eyes and down his back.
Tae rested his hand on his long sword, the hilt familiar under his fingers.
To his people of the Land of the Morning Calm, the tiger symbolized strength and protection. His brothers in the hwarang, the full flower of the warriors of his people, worshipped that tiger spirit, and followed Seon, the Zen. They fought with sword and bow, hand and foot, with a prowess that even the Hsuing Nu heard of on their far Northern steppes and respected.
Now he must fight with his heart, mayhap every drop of his blood—against enemies within and without.
Did his messenger know he carried Tae’s life and that of his people in his hands? Tae resisted the compulsion to draw his blade. It would be an easy thing to follow, to ensure loyalty.
He let his fingers slip from the sword hilt. He had known before he began his message to Jun-ho Tsing, rebel kuksun of the five thousand massed outside the gate, that one rangdo with a false tongue walked among his two hundred. Tae’s heart beat heavy in his chest.
During training, his students emulated his every hand strike, feint, and sword-blow as he led them in the honored techniques of Subak and Taekyon as the sun rose over the rim of the world, glinting flame on the water of the river they practiced beside. Over time they grew strong. Their feet flashed high in jumping kicks and sent their mounted opponents’ hats of horsehair spinning to the ground. The punches of the most adept cracked ribs like dry pine—could crush an attacker’s throat—shock the heart so it ceased to beat. Their open hand strikes knocked a man senseless, disrupting the nervous system, or in precise combination brought the touch of death.
His rangdo—two hundred students who aspired to become hwarang, as he was. Tae had thought every one of them sought to serve his kuksun’s family, their village, their land. Sought to serve with the same honor as the favored Tae Chisun—who held the hand and heart of their kuksun’s daughter, Huen.
Tae’s breath stopped a moment. Favored. Yes, he was. And with the dawn he would be Kuksun Paekche Kim’s most esteemed hwarang—or he would be dead.
Surely his most trusted messenger was true. Would his rangdo carry his offer to Jun-ho Tsing of the five thousand? Or would he try to rise above his rank and take the message elsewhere, yearning for Kuksun Paekche Kim’s favor? Did his messenger believe with the kuksun that it was an honorable path to fight to the last child? The other villages would follow Paekche’s example.
Tae grunted. Taxes always went to an overlord, be it king or kuksun. Better that it was to rebel Jun-ho Tsing than the lord of death. The village had little food left and many rangdo, who ate much. Tae swallowed. He had not tasted the hot bite of Huen’s fermented cabbage and spice for days.
He stepped out into the wet dark and shut the door. Who knew the undercurrents between the villages better than its protecting kuksun, with his hwarang and rangdo warriors? The rebel Jun-ho Tsing would need them all to oversee his new land and people. So Kuksun Paekche Kim might live, and his brothers, down to the lowest rangdo. Satisfaction tugged at Tae’s mouth. Life—and his Huen’s smile.
He would see her live—if it meant his own death. His mouth tightened. He had a task yet to complete. Rain misted against his face, the budding maples smelled sweet.
He carefully wrapped his sword-hilt against the wet and slipped away.
Molten fire shone along his blade in the light of the lamps from his old master’s open door. The door yet quivered on its hinges.
Tae kept to the shadow.
Standing under the square door-arch in his leather and cane armor, Woon Chong said nothing. His mouth pulled up in a sneer and he drew his weapon, stepping down to meet Tae. No one stirred behind the carved porch pillars, no voice or clatter of dish came from within the house.
Tae retreated farther into the dark; the light must not blind him. He kept his weight even, not lifting his feet from the mud. He must feel his way along the earth; avoid the stray branch, the deceptive puddle, the rock that would turn.
Woon Chong shifted his heavy frame, circling him, a floating feather. Noiseless, he lifted his blade from his side, slicing up and across Tae’s body in an adder-swift strike. But Tae was not there to be gutted.
Woon Chong rained heavy blows on him, precise with hate. Steel grated on steel and sparked. Tae’s blade gave before his hwarang master’s, deflect, attack, and deflect—until the moment Woon extended his arm. Tae struck his wrist. Woon Chong’s sword spun away and thudded to earth.
Tae locked Woon’s arm behind him, his blade at his throat. His master did not dare try to throw him. His chest heaved under Tae’s hand; his breath whistled hoarsely. Not for Tae, the mountain-cat playing with the mouse.
He gripped him hard. “I am sorry.”
When Tae returned to his command post the rain had washed the blood from his hands and the tears from his face. Dawn was near. The traitor had struggled and pleaded. But he could not let Woon Chong live. Such a one would betray again.
Tae swallowed hard. The same might soon be said of him.
And they must not find him with Huen, or she would be accused. When he first saw her he had been rangdo to hwarang Woon Chong.
That morning, his master ordered him to display the way of the sword with one of his brothers, to show their skill before the kuksun’s daughter, who walked through the courtyard.
She had been such a bright spirit, her cheeks soft as a slender peach, her deep brown eyes reminding him of those of a water-deer. Her words to her maid when she saw them, before she brought her hand to her mouth, were swift as the red that crept up her neck, a rosy blush on her golden skin.
With a sudden rush, Tae had disarmed his brother in a moment. Huen laughed at the surprised rangdo’s stare of disbelief at his empty hand where his sword had been. And red-faced Woon Chong ordered Tae to strike his brother with the flat of his sword. Tae stopped after three blows.
Woon yelled at him to continue, and Tae bowed, held out his sword hilt and said, “I did not teach my brother the sword aright.” He bent across his brother’s back and took the rest of his master’s instruction.
As Tae returned from washing his bloody back after the sword lesson, he contrived to pass near Huen. He overheard her quiet aside to her maid. “That rangdo has a spirit about him. A tiger, yet with the gentleness of the deer …”
She said it thoughtfully, words that would be cause for blood coming from any other mouth. Tae thought her rather perceptive. He had bowed deeply, straightened, and met the sardonic gaze of his kuksun, who stood just beyond his daughter.
Tae touched the rough wood of his command post door. From the beginning, Woon Chong had sought to protect his place as hwarang, driving the rangdo under him mercilessly, without care for life, limb, or purpose. No warrior among them attracted their kuksun’s notice without paying a price to Woon Chong. From then on, Tae performed his master’s toughest tasks. They had made him strong.
Tae bowed his head. Even now he did not lift his sword without reason—and held it until his task was finished. His master had been the last.
He wiped his eyes. Woon Chong had thought to kill those hwarang of rank around him and sell the villages to Jun-ho Tsing. To gain a new kuksun who would place him at his side, as Kuksun Paekche Kim had not. One who had reached enlightenment would call him demonic—one who walked with greed and hate.
Tae stepped inside the command post, wiped his blade, and slid it slowly back into its wood sheath. His own journey had not begun in truth.
Before his test to become hwarang he went to the Chin mainland to study scribing, medicine, and the arts of war. His questions had been many. Why did he yearn for joy? Why did life and the earth feel broken?
In the Chin place of learning he found answers to his questions of the stars. A man, shunned by the rest, had showed him the Book of the I AM.
Tae settled himself against the command post wall and laid his sword before his feet. Seon, as his people put it, did give power. Inhuman strength, to both flesh and spirit—but never the power to dispel his darkness. That grew ever heavier.
Tae smiled wryly. Strange that one could seek enlightenment, the end of delusion, and be so deluded. Caught in so much darkness that there was no light to see it.
The pages of the Book had reflected as a pool the ugliness of his hate for Woon Chong and the other dark things crowding within him. Turning his face toward the Buddha, drinking the power of Zen, did not change their existence. He caught back a short laugh.
And after what he discovered, he could no longer petition the spirits of river and hill or follow the way of the Zen. He had beaten the man who asked him why a warrior feared the truth.
But it haunted him, would not leave him. The promise of meaning and purpose kept him close until he read the Book further and was answered.
The Master of the stars gave the path of meaning to all things he created.
Tae’s throat closed. He had known he could never attain rightness as the Master of the stars was right in all things. Compassionate, just, pure, strong, the Master of the stars was good. Loving men, he existed in himself. Tae was evil, and condemned. But then love and sacrifice expunged his darkness.
He knew swords. The Book’s edge was keen, dividing the pure from the impure. But unlike any other sword, the Word within the Book’s pages also healed.
The Master of the stars paid his blood-soaked debt and sent him on to live, to love, to grow in joy. He was not master of his own fate. He was not God. But the Master of all cared about him, walked with him, taught him to wield the sword in both worlds, in the realm of spirit and flesh. The pieces of the universe slid into place. He had asked pardon of the man who showed him the Book, and they parted as brothers.
Tae tipped his head back against the wall and shut his eyes. He took truth and left the power of Seon, the Zen. But it was not comfortable, dividing intentions, and hearts, and men. Though life held much suffering, his lord overcame it. His Master would bring him to his land of joy in the end, where suffering ceased forever. That time might be very near.
The thin cane door bent under the blows. “Open, in the Kuksun’s name!”
Tae lifted his head from his knees. The door burst open.
They took his sword and seized him, two men for each arm. Six guards marched him between them into Kuksun Paekche Kim’s presence.
Tae knelt one moment before the guards forced him down. He would die with few faces to witness his dishonor—Paekche gave him that. He raised his head.
Paekche’s mouth was flat, his black eyes hard. A frown wrinkled his wide brow beneath his black hair in its simple warrior’s knot, bound by a green silk band stitched with the sigil of the house of Kim.
Had Huen’s hands fashioned that band with pride and joy? Tonight her father would bring her sorrow, whatever he decided. Tae let out his breath. If his blood were of the house of Kim, however distant, it would be easier to convince his kuksun. But for that there was no remedy.
“My Kuksun.” He leaned forward, baring his neck in trust, whether his kuksun raised his sword above him or no.
“Why?” Paekche growled. The stinging blow of his hand numbed Tae’s cheek and rocked him back on his heels. The carefully shaven lines of Paekche’s beard framed the sides of his square chin.
“How could you give us to Jun-ho! Do you seek higher rank so fiercely? Is the spirit of the tiger dead in you? Has the leader of my hwarang turned his back to his enemies?”
“I do not give our people to Jun-ho Tsing, I give them life.” Tae’s jaw hardened. “A man’s heart is not determined by his rank. And the tiger—in spirit we run together, and bow to the Master of the stars alone.”
“So, you raise your name beside the tiger’s, and seek my seat?”
“No, most honorable Kuksun. I fight for our land, and for you. That both may endure.”
Paekche paced back and forth on the dais. His silk slippers whispered over the polished wood. His robes loosed the scent of cloves, star-anise, and musk.
“Did your lord of all not die without lifting his hand for his kingdom?” Paekche’s voice was harsh.
Tae could not stop his back from stiffening. The guards pressed down on his shoulders, but let him rise to his knees, so long as he did not lift his gaze in this moment. He strove to keep the heat from his voice. “He died for us, honorable Kuksun. And he rose from death to build his kingdom—in our hearts—in any who wish purity and strength.” He let out a weary breath. “He holds my heart in his hand.”
“As I, your Kuksun, hold your body.”
“Yes. As does Huen, who holds my heart also.” Tae lifted his gaze. “My Kuksun—I seek Jun-ho Tsing’s face that you and Huen may live, and the house of Kim. He will need you. There is no need for blood.”
Had Jun-ho Tsing even received his rangdo’s message? Two might not be enough. Tae prayed with all his might one got through. “As for the stolen burial land, though our ancestors remain in our memory, bones cannot speak, or touch, or laugh. Their dust sleeps; though that earth is sacred, would they not rather we walk in life, than for our blood to water the ground where none can touch them?”
Paekche lifted his hand. The men holding Tae’s arms stiffened, their fingers binding as steel. The sixth guard stepped forward, a moon-blade halberd in his hands.
It was his answer. Tae’s chest tightened and his breath came short. He bowed his head. He had one thing left to lose.
I hope you enjoyed this excerpt of Falcon Dagger Bk III, Path of the Warrior
Crossover – Find the Eternal, the Adventure