His pack was heavy. The sun was high in the sky, midday, and Haaru had been walking since dawn. The ache at the base of his back had begun and his feet were calling for a short break but he ignored them. He knew his body well after years of travel. Another hour wouldn’t change anything. The forest shaded the sun’s rays from the path and a gentle breeze provided relief from the growing heat. He left the thin, mountain air a few days ago and his lungs weren’t yet adjusted to the dense humidity of the forest. They screamed they were drowning, but Haaru kept on until a new ache began.
He crossed a small stream and stopped. He squatted, letting the earth take the weight of his pack, and slowly untangled himself from the straps. He opened a small side compartment and removed a cloth bag containing his lunch. Roasted fowl, two pears, and a handful of mushrooms. Then he removed his wooden sandals, stained dark with oil and years of use, and tied them to the pack. He sat on a large stone and dipped his feet in a small pool beside the stream. The cool water sent a chill through his bones and permeated the heat still swelling his muscles. He let out a groan of appreciation and enjoyed the feeling for a few moments before turning to his lunch.
Haaru ate slowly despite feeling ravenous. When he finished, he washed the cloth bag and set it beside him on the stone to dry. He pulled his feet from the pool and laid himself across the large stone as well. He felt the warmth of the stone against his back and the cool breeze kiss his sweat-damp clothes. He rested. Sleep threatened to relieve his consciousness several times and he was ready to surrender to it. Then he heard the sounds of children. A faint echo of laughter in the air. Haaru opened his eyes and stared at the canopy above, watching the sky dance with the leaves, until he heard it again.
His muscles were stiff but no longer ached. He wondered if he had rested too long, but threw the matter away as unimportant. He grabbed the cloth bag and returned it to his pack. The laughter rang out again as he strapped his worn sandals to his feet, fitted himself back into the hulking pack and, with a grunt, relieved the earth of its weight. The laughter echoed again. A smile crept across his features. The laughter reminded his thick, cork-like muscles of his own childhood. When he would run endlessly, climb trees, swim for hours. More laughter and this time he managed to grasp its direction. It was away from the path, but he had packed food for several days before needing to return to the village, and he had a feeling this may be the reason he was here.
The trees were thin, no larger than Haaru’s thin frame, and the roots protruded from the ground leaving little room to move unhindered. The laughter grew louder and soon danced around him. He couldn’t see anyone, but he knew they were near.
“Hello,” he called out. Silence. “Hello,” he called again.
“Hello,” a muffled voice responded.
It came from a few paces to his right. He froze, slowly turned his head toward the voice, and saw an ancient set of armor leaning against a tree. Moss had covered its entire surface so it appeared as part of the forest itself save for the shape. The voice came from inside it.
“Who are you?” the muffled voice asked.
“I am Haaru,” he said, “and what is your name?”
“Are you here alone, Shigeru?”
“Why don’t you come out of there?”
No muffled answer came. A few seconds passed and the breastplate opened. The leather straps, now mostly moss, threatened to disintegrate at the slight movement. The boy emerged and the armor returned to its resting state. Haaru guessed he was nearly five years old. He had raven-black hair and looked half starved. Big brown eyes looked up at him.
The boy smiled politely. Haaru looked around but saw no one else. He looked up into the trees hoping to spot someone. The laughter had disappeared.
“Where are your friends?”
“Mishi is over there,” the boy pointed. Haaru followed the boy’s arm to a moss-covered helmet leaning against a tree. “And Koturo is there, and Jensai, and Mido, and Deku, and-”
Haaru placed a hand on the boy’s arm to stop him. The boy seemed eager to point out all of his friends, but all Haaru could see were sets of armor. Many were no more than broken pieces. All of them were consumed by the forest. Haaru guessed a battle took place here long ago. The bodies left unclaimed.
“How many of you are out here?” Haaru asked.
The boy shrugged as an answer.
“Where are your parents?”
The boy shrugged again.
“Where is home?” he tried again.
“Changyang,” Haaru repeated. He was filled with sadness and relief all at once upon hearing this answer. “How did you get here, Shigeru?”
“Orders…sir,” the boy said, uttering the second word as an afterthought.
Shigeru stood proudly and answered, “General Xing.”
“General Xing,” Haaru repeated the name. He had guessed correctly. These children were his reason for entering the forest.
“How long have you been here?”
“A long time,” a voice called from behind them. Haaru turned to see another boy sitting on a pair of grieves that more resembled tree roots than armor. It was one Shigeru called out earlier. Mido.
“How long is a long time?” Haaru asked softly.
Mido sighed and laid down across the remains of a breastplate.
Haaru looked to his left to find a young boy with autumn hair tied in the traditional top knot.
“I see,” Haaru muttered. Several boys had revealed themselves. Each sitting or standing on the remnants of a set of armor. Many of which were not included in Shigeru’s eager introductions.
“How many of you are there?” he asked again.
None answered. Haaru decided it was time. He bent his knees until the pack rested on the ground. He dug through stacks of parchment, each bound tightly between bamboo planks, until he found his brush, ink, and a stack of blank pages. He sat on the forest floor and arranged the ink and parchment.
“Would you mind telling me your story?” he asked as he dipped his brush in the ink and held it before the parchment. He looked up to see they had all gone. Every child had disappeared without a sound. The breeze rustled the leaves and the sunlight danced on the forest floor.
His only answer was the sounds of the forest.
Haaru remained seated with his brush at the ready. As the light began to fade, he built a small fire and prepared for a long night. He pulled several lychee berries from his pack and ate them. Their floral aroma filled the air. He finished, cleaned his hands, and continued to wait as the forest grew dark. His eyes grew heavy but he fought the continuous pull of sleep. He held his brush ready, patiently waiting for the children to return.
He began to lose the battle against his body. His eyelids slowly rose and fell like the waves of the sea. His body twitched and he jerked himself alert upon realizing his lapse. He rubbed sleep from his eyes and found Shigeru standing before him. The other boys were there as well, and behind them perhaps a hundred more could be seen in the moonlight that penetrated the canopy.
“We will tell you our story,” Shigeru said. The boyish tone was no longer present.
Haaru gripped his brush and nodded for the boy to continue.
“Let me first answer your question. There are 147 of us. A relatively small company, to be sure, when speaking of the indomitable army led by General Xing for his eminence Emperor Jiangxi. I, Shigeru Matsushi, am the captain of this company.”
“The fiercest warriors of any battalion.”
“Quiet Mido,” Shigeru chided the boy behind him.
Mido crossed his arms and glared at Shigeru’s back but remained quiet.
“My lieutenant speaks out of turn, but he is correct. We were the highest skilled warriors within the Emperor’s army. Yes,” Shigeru saw the question in Haaru’s eyes, “we are well aware of our current situation. We were monsters of men when we entered battle though we were not quite men in the eyes of many. We have not been children since before we were taken, but we prefer this form.
“I lived on an island beyond where the Yangtze empties into the sea. The General’s men came and took me from my village along with several other boys. I later realized these men were expected as no one protested our abduction. Jensai is the only one here who also came from my village. We were all gathered in this fashion. Stolen from our homes. Most of us merely four or five years of age when we were taken.
“After weeks of hard travel, we were left at a fortification near the peak of Changyang. It was there in the bitter cold we trained. General Xing himself would lead our education when he was in the region, which was often, and it was during his training when we lost most of our brothers. He taught us how to be ruthless, how to end the life of even someone you called a friend, so we learned to live together without forming bonds beyond those found in battle. Our numbers shrank as our training progressed in the harsh conditions of the mountain. Two attempted escape, but there was nowhere to go and they were quickly hunted down. We quickly learned to accept our new lives or accept death. We grew as cold as the snow that never ceased.
“Every day mirrored the one before. We would all wake before sunrise, sweep the snow from the courtyard, spar with fists, then with wooden swords. Before lunch we held a tournament of iron swords. Single elimination. The first cut deciding the winner. The champion would be given an extra portion during lunch. We all desired this as the meager meals we were given served the purpose of providing heat more than it did sustenance. When General Xing visited, he would be the judge of these tournaments and would determine the victor of each fight. It would be many cuts before he made his decision.
“Our afternoons included training on horseback and ranged weapons. No tournament was held in the afternoons. The last hour of the day was reserved for strategy and held inside. We would all go to bed battered and bruised. Many of us with new scars forming. We never left the mountain except to train in different environments.
“Maybe ten years passed this way. Time was lost to us. Known only by the slow growth of our bodies. We became young men and skilled warriors. Then our first assignment was given. General Xing appointed our positions. Ten lieutenants were each given thirteen men. I was given full authority as captain and would fight alongside the remaining eight as an elite unit. We were sent as an advance party to capture a command post west of the Hongshui river. We attacked at night. It was a small fortress but held a garrison of three hundred men. We lost two men but had taken the fortress by sunrise. We spared three of our enemy, the customary number when gathering information, and tied them to wooden posts hammered into the courtyard.
“Two days passed before General Xing arrived. He quickly filled the garrison with his men and questioned the prisoners before issuing our next orders. He never provided more than our next assignment. We performed dutifully and never lost another soldier. Even when fighting outnumbered eight to one. Rumor of our company spread among the enemy as well as among the other soldiers under General Xing until even the emperor learned of our company. We did not know at the time, but this was something General Xing had gone to great lengths to prevent. We wish he would have succeeded.
“The end of the war drew near after three short years. We had conquered the last outpost and had it prepared for the General’s arrival where he would command the final assault. He arrived behind Emperor Jiangxi whom we were not expecting. Many duties must be completed during the transition of command within a fortress, and we were not yet clean from our fighting when he called us for inspection. We delayed these duties and presented ourselves at full attention in the courtyard for the emperor. He examined every one of us without a word before disappearing into the high chamber with General Xing.
“The next day our orders came. This time we were to gather intelligence without attacking. A scouting mission. The change in tactics was strange, but we were advancing on the final stronghold so we thought nothing of it. It was not our place to question the general. Besides, it was a six-day journey and we were eager to leave the emperor’s gaze.” Shigeru paused and looked at the forest surrounding them. “We were ambushed here. Not by our enemy but by the emperor’s personal soldiers. Our rear guard had spotted them a day prior, but betrayal had not dared enter our minds. We were only concerned with our next assignment and were thus ill-prepared when they struck. But we were not fully caught off-guard. We fought for a full day and night. We slew five for every one we lost, but their numbers were great and eventually overcame our last man. We were left here. No rituals provided for our bodies. Not even those fit for a common peasant let alone those for a warrior of our status. We were left to rot with the heat of each day, and we have remained in this forest since.”
Haaru finished writing Shigeru’s account. The night had begun to fade but the sun was still a few hours from rising. The fire was mostly embers. Haaru’s eyes had resorted to the filtered moonlight to guide his brush sometime in the night. He placed the brush beside the ink and laid the final sheet of parchment out to dry, habitually placing the recently dried sheet onto the stack beside him.
“Tell me, traveler,” Shigeru said, “how long have we been here?”
Haaru considered their account. Unsure of how to answer. “It has been three hundred years since Emperor Jiangxi was alive.” A soft, collective gasp rustled through the forest like a soft breeze. A low murmur began to spread among them. Shigeru made a simple hand gesture and the forest was again silent. Haaru believed the boy must have been a great leader to evoke such discipline with a simple movement.
“Three hundred years is a long time. Yet you are the first to speak to us.”
Haaru sealed the ink and began cleaning his brush. “I have traveled many leagues and have seen many things. I have encountered several…incidents…that frighten most people, but I know there is a truth behind them that the common man would discolor with his imagination. Many times they do so unintentionally, because they are afraid or are unable to believe what their senses show them to be true. They believe reality is supposed to work within a set of rules. They do not realize there is more than one path that leads to truth.” He combed the wet brush and set it down to dry.
“And you walk several paths?” Mido asked reproachfully. This time Shigeru did not reprimand him.
“Possibly,” Haaru said. He examined the dead fire with a stick. Making patterns in the embers and ash.
“Why did you ask for our story?” Shigeru asked. A hint of command still in his voice.
“I want to share it. Spread it among those who will listen and let history know a truth that was buried by a powerful man.”
“You defy an emperor’s decision?”
“I face no retribution from the dead. However, it is not the emperor I am referring.”
Shigeru contemplated his words and asked in a low tone filled with warning, “You dare bring shame to our general?”
The other 146 children standing within the forest shifted their weight simultaneously. It was slight, and barely noticeable even when done in unison by so many, but Haaru’s skin prickled at the sudden hostility. He did not fear them and convinced himself he would not falter even if they had the means of harming him. Shigeru was the only one who did not change his stance. Haaru saw him at last for who he was. A true commander who possessed the loyalty of his men even beyond death. An allegiance he shared equally with every one of them.
“I only wish to tell a truth hidden to allow a favorable legacy. You are not aware of how history has treated your general. He is regarded as a great strategist. Able to predict his enemy’s intentions. He could capture a stronghold by simply willing it. Your account replaces the fertile soil where his legend has been left to grow wild. With your story told, the world would know the truth that he was just a man. Still a brilliant strategist, but ruthless. A man who built a reputation on the backs of kidnapped children.”
Haaru surveyed the sea of children as best he could without removing his eyes from Shigeru’s. They were still on guard. Ready to attack but waiting for the order.
“Do you not want your story to be told? Do you not want to be remembered?”
Shigeru made a swift movement through the air with his fist. The children relaxed. Haaru found himself doing the same. He sat, expectant, awaiting the answer.
“The only home we’ve ever known was Changyang. Our lives before our duty are merely distant memories mixed with dreams. We fought well and obeyed every command our leader gave us. We only served the emperor through our general. The world knows a figurehead does not win the battles they never see. Our legacy lives within General Xing’s.
“Tell us,” Shigeru continued, “since you claim to know of those from our time. What happened to our general?”
Haaru finally relaxed. Their reason was a twisted love for their general.
“He lived a long life while serving his emperor.”
“How did he die?”
Haaru sighed, “No. It was after his final defeat. They say the new emperor attempted to retain him as general of the new armies, but he refused. He chose a warrior’s death.”
The sea of children stirred but the forest remained silent. The sun was preparing to rise and the first birds began to chirp, but the sound did not sway the heavy sadness among them.
“Thank you, traveler,” Shigeru finally said, “you have done us a great service. We have been plagued with uncertainty about those we left behind. General Xing and his personal guard. We feared he too had been defeated by treachery. We are glad to hear he served and died well.”
“Is there more you wish to know?” Haaru asked.
“No. Three hundred years has undoubtedly changed the world we knew. I think it is time we finally departed for our next assignment. Before we are gone, I must ask again. What do you intend to do with our story?” Shigeru glanced at the pile of pages. Haaru placed the final page, having dried some time ago, onto the pile and straightened the stack.
“I have told you my intentions, but it is your choice to make.”
Shigeru gestured, sweeping his arm as if it were a command, and Haaru understood the meaning behind it. He slowly gathered the stack of parchment and hesitated, looking to Shigeru who offered a firm smile, then placed the pages on the dying embers. The parchment smoked slowly before igniting. The flames roared, emitting an intense heat before settling down to a steady smolder. The ink burned bright gold with faint shades of blue-green. Within minutes the parchment was nothing but ash and ember. Haaru could not help but feel a tinge of sorrow as he watched specks of ash lifted into the air only to fall back to the earth like snow.
“Thank you,” Shigeru said. His hand rose in the air and with a sweep he issued his final command.
Haaru watched as a fog lifted through the forest floor and slowly filled the trees. The children did not move but were soon lost to his sight within the thick air. Then, just as quickly, the fog dissipated even without the warmth of the morning sun. They were gone. Haaru sat alone in the forest listening to the sounds of morning.
He rose despite the protest of his body. The lack of sleep made his blood beat thin, but his mind was too active for rest. He returned his brush and ink to his pack and put out the embers with a bowl of water from the stream. A long day’s journey was ahead of him. He would need rest before he made it to the village, but he once again shouldered the massive weight of his pack and began walking carefully through the forest.
Haaru woke on a straw mat. He had arrived late in the evening and was surprised to find he was expected. The village elder had decided to wait for him despite Haaru insisting he would be gone several days. The elder had waved his protest away claiming she was awake anyway and decided to pass the time by waiting. Haaru was too tired to argue and happily accepted the offered room. He had given himself a few hours’ sleep during the day but still had plenty to regain when he finally settled down.
He must have slept as a stone. The sunlight was strong. Children were playing outside. He left his pack in the room and went to find the elder. She was watching the children as the men and women of the village were busy with their tasks. Haaru sat beside the elder and waited for her to begin the conversation. The morning air was still cool but would soon be stifling. He could feel the humidity rising with the sun.
“I have already told everyone the forest is at rest,” she said.
“There was never any danger,” Haaru offered.
“I was not as troubled by the sounds like the others. I had grown used to them after all these years. I feared them as a child, but age often brings clarity, or faith, and I knew there was no malice lurking within the trees, but it was an unnatural matter. We are glad you happened upon us.”
They sat and watched the children chase each other around the well. Haaru tried imagining the old woman as one of them. This village was old and had known of the unrest in the forest. They knew spirits had gathered within the trees. They simply avoided venturing too far in and never without sunlight.
“I must thank you again,” the elder said, “I know our payment was insufficient for your trouble.”
“It was more than generous,” Haaru interjected. It was enough to keep him fed, which was all he ever needed, and it only cost him some sleep. “Thank you for your hospitality. I will be leaving before midday.”
“So soon?” The elder finally looked at him. “You must still be tired after traveling the forest.”
“I am plenty rested to begin again.” He feet still ached from the long days of walking and his body would benefit from a full day’s rest, but he feared the allure of comfort. He needed to keep moving. There was a legend told about a village near the southern border that caught his ear several weeks ago.
“Will you at least stay for some tea?” the elder asked.
“Tea would be delightful.”
He had tea with the elder and listened to the stories she offered. He listened attentively and answered what questions she had the confidence to ask. She never inquired about the children of the forest. He sensed her reservations and also her respect for him.
He was used to admiration or fear. His work often drew either suspicion or reverence. His results always earned him respect. He was aware of the stories that surrounded him, but he also knew that these were created by the very people who made demons from rabid foxes.
The elder was beyond believing him to be more than he was. Her company was refreshing and he enjoyed their time together. When the sun was overhead, he gathered his things and hoisted the pack from the floor. The full weight settled on him.
Haaru had mastered the art of farewell throughout his travels. He followed the sun as it crawled across the sky then he turned south in the evening light. The legend he had heard turned over in his head. It involved a pair of sisters. He caught himself guessing at its true origin and turned his thoughts away so as not to cloud his expectations. He would wait until he heard their story.