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The Second Siege Of Jinju Fortres
By Tom Dowling

2009 Samurai Fiction Contest

Genre: Historical Fiction

 

 

 

Dawn brought fourth the enemy, the horizon was infested with them.

            General Hwang Jin looked out to the early morning sea, with a glare in his Argus-eyes that was as castellated as his fortress's defenses and stern like the dressed stone it was constructed from. Some of its more recent builders now manned the long walls, hands weathered; dirt still under their fingernails. Hearts were pounding like waves crashing upon a shore beneath cavernous ribcage's. Only the beat outworked the howls of hungry stomachs. But, their souls were strong and resolute unlike a few weak junctions of the wall that they hoped would not be found. There were others inside too: civilians, non combatants and refugees. They were not so strong, yes, strong is the word. There only because there was nowhere else for them to go. That and forced edicts which branded absent civilians as collaborators. Even the King, way up in the North had fled from the invaders several victorious Divisions. General Hwang Jin, commander of the Korean garrison of Jinju Fortress on the Korean South coast, was however strong. He possessed a will as insurmountable as many of the raw, untamed and wild mountains that beset the rear of the fortress and a desire to war as rapid as the river that meandered beneath the defenses.

            From a different position, Hwang perused the water of an uncountable armada of ships that sailed from Nagasaki – if his spies information was correct; not that it mattered where they came from: they were here now. They were bobbing vertically and swaying at odd angles their deep keels not suited for the narrow Korean coastline, a veritable minefield of rocks and doom. Hwang smiled slightly he knew that they could not be enjoying the rough tides of the early morning. Oh how I wish our mighty navy were here now, under the command of Admiral Yi Sun-sin. The single sails of the Japanese ships, adorned with Hideyoshi's insignia, were flapping rapaciously as if to the breathing of distant kami. Hwang almost pitied their navy, a navy made up of merchant ships-cum-transports. They could never stand up to our advanced cannon, sturdy decks with capable and experienced sailors.

            Among the defensive capabilities at his disposals, Hwang could boast a couple of naval cannons salvaged from a beached Korean ship, torched by a freak lightening strike not long after the first major test of the fortress. The story is often retold by local fishermen in varying bards, of how the “gods sent to the earth a sword of flame painted in honey and blood, so that the new garrison commander would be blessed with black cannons,” so called because their colour matches smouldering charcoal. Hwang recalled how disappointing it was to see the heavy-timbered skeleton of one of the mighty Turtle ships upon the flaxen shore, for just one of them could have rammed and fired it's broadsides with near impunity against the enemy vessels. It would have been a big help. But, what the fleet lost the General gained. The event in question occurred two days after the first siege of Jinju: a great victory, but one that claimed the life of its famous commander that won it, General Kim. His death lead to Hwang's promotion a deeply bitter-sweet moment. The new General had always privately interpreted the beached ship as an omen, knowing that the Japanese would someday return. The gods on that day had either favoured him with the cannon that would potentially effect the defense of the castle or perhaps the enemy fleet would be destroyed. Maybe a sign that the enemy would attack and conquer by the sea. What ever interpretations he drew at various times over the last year, he believed the cannons he personally rescued would play a central role. Hwang always enjoyed inspecting the cannons, knowing full well they out ranged his enemies equivalents, installing a sense of pride. They were powerful too. Sometimes a little hope enveloped his soul as he brushed his naked hands along the cast iron shaft. It repaired the ramparts of self doubt within, as the cold feeling of the iron coursed its way to his nerves at times when his heart sometimes philandered at the challenge he knew would arrive on light Japanese boats. But it was not the ships that Hwang feared, rather it's cargo of warriors that filled their timber belly's, laced in iron pegs and a conquering zeal instilled by their liege lord, Hideyoshi.

            The wooden vessels glistened as Hideyoshi's samurai checked their armour, swords and weapons. The more religious of the invading expedition prayed to far-off gods of war and battle, Hachiman chief among them. Incense was also burnt to the various Buddhist sects, perfuming the air until it was diluted with the sea salt breeze. Some of the enemies vast horde did this on the various decks, others below concealing their number's to far sighted watchers, including Hwang himself. I wonder how many there are? The question just seemed to fall out of Hwang's mouth without him realising, just like a dragon's warm breath escaping through it's imposing nostrils. Hwang had wished, however that a messenger attached to his entourage had not answered his internal rumblings with the answer of, “Ninety thousand, General, Sir.” If that was the case, then a sizable chunk of the Daimyo-would be-Shogun's one hundred and fifty thousand man army was nearing General Hwang's gates. The unbridled might of Japan was about to be unleashed at Hideyoshi's pleasure upon a relatively peaceful part of the country like he had released on the rest of the land already – a land without a national field army. Hideyoshi was clearly eager to dismiss the shame that his forces suffered at the hands of a vastly outnumbered garrison from the previous year. Though, this time he was intending to sweep away the enemy and crush the defenders. He further requested by subsequent messengers, that the head of the commander should be shipped back to him in a barrel of sake to be displayed in one of the towers around Osaka Castle. The interlopers, however were not too far away from the coast. A landing was imminent in Hwang's district. The reflection from the steel of samurai swords, long spears and the simple muskets of the peasants sparkled like jewels, overpowering the water's shine. Even the Korean gods could not compete to such an array of foes. Had it not been for the nature of the amassed warriors that festooned his homeland's shore, and indeed much of the rest of the country. He considered that the sight before him would have been rather beautiful, a sight most definitely worthy of art and poetry.

            The broad shoulders of the commander of the garrison baulked over the iron-strength of his white horse. Its muddy, muscular hind legs holding the colossal frame of Hwang Jin. The General took a moment to appreciate the sea gale, enjoying the salt amongst the wind – he knew it could be his last. He couldn't feel these sensations a few miles down at the fortress, but he could here, at the headland a place of personal retreat. General Hwang Jin dismounted from his tamed beast and removed his right hands' glove of war with a swift movement of the left. He knelt, almost as if to bow to the King Seonjo himself. He slowly pressed his hand amongst the dragon-green grass and felt its gloppy texture. It was if the morning dew was caused by his gods weeping the night before over this coming day. But he wanted to savour the morning's experiences. All would mean something during a siege or during his final moments in death. His heart sank at the thought, before he remembered he was a warrior, not a priest. He forged Korea's destiny with sword, not with the prayer scrolls. The King had given him this honour, this important task. As he began to replace his glove to his warring hand, so too had his heart been redressed in war armour. Today I will make my stand. If I fall, I will do so will honour. Maybe I will even win a glory like that of Kim Si-min, who sacrificed his mortal life to live in perpetual glory. He embraced the thought of his three children.

            The General's face was covered in a war mask made of lacquer, the shade of the setting sun: orange, red and such like complete with grooves of a fierce design. With the powerful sight of the gods, you would have been struck by strong cheek bones, a fine chiseled jaw and a slightly shorter nose than most; quite handsome. His pigmentation was pure, typically Korean. His soil colour eyes matched his hair. His mustache drooped like a willow tree, had tiny feathers of grey, yet he was no older than thirty-five. The Japanese invasion had taken its toll on Hwang as all the other commanders and citizens. His frame was large, though he carried no fat. A life devoted to training and a Spartan lifestyle created this as surely as sculpture hues statues from stone. Hwang's responsibility was to hold Jeolla province. That meant stopping the tides of the enemy at the feet of the mountain fortress's smooth and angular walls. Jinju Fortress had to repel the enemy where others had failed. The General lingered a little longer when a kestrel perched on a rock, it locked magnificent and proud like Hwang in his armour. Perhaps another omen?

            Hwang's serenity was suddenly broken when a horn was sounded: it was Japanese. It was distinctive. There was no hope that it was a Korean relief force, victorious on some far flung plain. Indeed, the infrequent reports from the scouts had been the complete opposites: the loss of eight thousand cavalry at Chungju, castles stormed and strategic retreats. The odds of a relief force aiding this famous fortress's defense in the mould of  Gwak Jae-u and his guerrilla troops were thin. The country seemed all but lost except for a few strongholds, the Left Command of the Navy and the token gestures from the Ming dynasty to the far West.

            Hwang was perspiring heavily under the purple coloured lacquered armour; his chest was wet, the moisture permeating his lagoon shaded under layers. Beads of perspiration made its way to the crimson fibres that bound the pieces of his warrior costume reducing his movement slightly. For Hwang, the hounds of hell had been released and it was time to return to the place that would reveal his path – the fortress. The only two things he had in common with the enemy was the fierce warrior spirit within that was both ferocious and prepared to die; and the Japanese sword that he wore since the last invasion one year before. The sword was won by Kim himself, slashing a samurai commander from one side of his belly to the other during an anxious defense of the Western wall. The soldiers of the then garrison presented the sword to Hwang as their newly appointed commander. Kim had no living heirs for his two sons died by their father's side bravely resisting a banzai charge of samurai. The General was buoyed by the idea that it would be a Japanese sword that defended his home from those who made it. He would wield great swathes of death, he promised himself that: his blade demanded kills, it demanded souls to quench it's insatiable thirst. His muscles tightened at the prospect, his adrenaline careening through his arteries at the velocity of a fired arrow. The unfortunate truth to Hwang though, was that Japanese steel - and therefore swords - were unrivaled in their quality from Indian to Japan. What's more, those Northern battles had shown that the samurai charges were not held by Korean infantry at close quarters. They neither had the training nor the weapons - not against a hardened army. The coming battle had to be won for the most part by his composite bowmen, hand-gunners and the hundred-plus trained arquebus gunners he had deployed above the main gate and a few weak points along the outer walls - range was on their side. The battles in the North had reported that the Korean archers and gunners were only able to get off two shots before the enemy closed. This, naturally greatly concerned Hwang. But his garrison was in a solid mountain fortress and they had received a little extra training, not to mention that their armourment that was bloistered by the swords littered by the Japanese dead on the previous siege. The reality was that each pull of the bow string or the musket's trigger had to hit its target to have any chance to holding this vital place, for he knew his rank and file would not stand. After the ranged volleys, he knew it would fall to himself and his personal bodyguard to repulse the enemy in pitched battle almost on their own, resisting all: musket ball, arrow, siege towers, ladders and steel that scaled his walls ushering fourth samurai warriors.

* * *

            General Kato Kiyomasa, commander of the Japanese forces, slowly produced his million-folded blade into the virgin morning air as his flagship rocked against the local gales. A strong odour of steel cascaded towards his nose - as it did before every battle - followed by an ever-so-faint smell of blood particles that clung to the crevices of his veteran sword after decades of kills. Kato named his sword thus: “The blade that makes Widows,” for it was such a fearsome weapon, one that had earned a reputation amongst the warriors of Japan. His stare fixed on its perfection, polished so clean that his reflection was as clear as a Geisha's mirror. This was a beautiful, divinely forged sword made near Mt. Fuji, and under its shadowy auspices. It took the sword-smith almost a year to make in the forge, billowing and smiting everyday from sun rise to sun set, virtually cut off from the rest of the world. He was helped only by the fox spirit and guided by loyalty to his lord. The blade was both pure and worth the wait when it was first presented to Kato Kiyotada, his father, one of the Seven Spears of Shizugatake. It was as strong as the walls of Osaka Castle and more aesthetically pleasing than any woman he had ever pillowed. His father had presented him with the sword on his death bed, as he could not take his most prized mortal possession to the next life. This mystical sword was even once touched by the Emperor himself in the presence of Hideyoshi – for its fame had traveled all the way to Kyoto on the eve of the Korean invasion. Kiyomasa was born in Owari province to Ito, Kiyotada's wife and cousin of Hideyoshi. Together with Kiyotada's heroic exploits at the Battles of Yamazaki and Shizutake, Kiyomasa was always destined for great commands. It was he who was selected to lead the Korean invasion and who was ordered to personally organise the destruction Jinju fortress by his master, Hideyoshi. This, his soul was committed to in order live up to his father's glorious past and honourable pedigree. Kato replaced the sword back into its slick sheath, knowing that it will be soon satisfied with an ocean of blood from which to drink. Kato also knew that which Hwang did: the Korean's will break at close quarters. Kato had already seen it with is own eyes a half dozen times in the last few months. The rank and file were no more likely to stand than heavy stone during an earthquake. All Kato had to do was breach the walls somehow, anyhow and the garrison would fall and he would have his victory; his great legacy. With his black war fan, he signaled to his chief sub-commander, Nabeshima Naoshige to blow the horn – the audited mark for the fleet to advance upon the enemy shore. Nabeshima's left wing advanced in conjunction with Kato's right. The centre, acting as a reserve, held back for several moments before it too headed towards the desolate beach. To Kato, it was like a crane attacking a fish; to Hwang it was the ripples of a tsunami.

* * *

            A few hundred meters down from General Hwang's position, a small group of peasants gathered. Their expressions seemed to say that they knew what was going to happen if the General's garrison failed to hold back the enemy. One of the peasants, a girl with hair the same shade as the Japanese boats seemed more aware than the others of the fate in store. Her striking features caught the glare of the General, a man widely known for his devotion to the marital arts as much as to his wife. But on this occasion, his mind uncharacteristically wandered like a feather in the wind. Her tears consumed him more than the advancing enemy fleet: the tears that fell from her red eyes reminded him of pink cherry blossoms falling in autumn. In his mind, he knew of the King's proclamation, but he was both encapsulated by the girl – perhaps no older than seventeen – and in dire need of extra soldiers. Those tears that she shed so gracefully may have been for her father and only surviving brother that Hwang ordered his junior officers to press into service at the point of a lance. This, Hwang reflected a few days later, was not needed. After the first few waves, those two men fought bravely and he considered that they were more victims of circumstance or curiosity than cowards or collaborators. But at that moment, the girl, her father and brother and a half dozen other males and women were armed and attached to General Hwang's entourage. It concluded a successful reconnaissance and recruitment mission of the surrounds.

            The Japanese ships advanced creaking under the strain of the sea, eddying against the current; meandering around shoals and rocks that spat water far into the air as the timber hulls neared. The inexperience of the navigators and hired pilots did not always succeed in finding a safe passage: the sea's flow swift and treacherous. Several warrior laden vessels smashed into the semi eroded rocks: the Japanese peasants who were witness to these shocking events and who were without honour, wailed; the samurai merely stood fast, not even Kato cursed. The Koreans of the General's entourage were the only ones that could see these events unfolding in the bay from their elevated position along the grassy mountain ridge that lead back to the fortress. In their understandable triumphalism, they duly celebrated with songs of cheer; songs to the King, but all the while, not forgetting to appropriately thank their gods and spirits. The wildlife of the coastal region had long ago left, except for a few savaging birds; the fish meanwhile were efficiently collected and stored only a day before. The General rode back hard to the fortress from the coastal, towering viewpoint he occupied. His junior officers and escort looked brave and ready to die. That will make it easier. It was better to die by one's General's side than be hacked down ingloriously during a hasty retreat like those to the North.

            General Hwang approached the fortress from the Western trails. The reinforced gates roared open; the creaks of ancient wood resounding into the ears of the pickets and sentry's. The gate's timber was old, but its strength increased with the passing of time. As for the ruling dynasty however, its power had been sapped as honey is extracted from bees. The kingdom had known relative peace for many years,  it was only when a Japanese expedition the previous year had clearly demonstrated their weakness and their chronic underestimation of the Japanese invaders - that they passed off as disorganized pirates – that all understood change was needed. After a few months of Japanese percolation, consolation and the general crushing of Korean forces, orders were secretly sent out and a whole host of preparations were made on a grand scale to halt the country slipping into the enemies grasp completely. The world had begun to change and alter under their very noses, the pendulum had swung in the Japanese's favour. Only the militia and a handful of commanders from entrenched positions could seemingly change the outcome of this war. It was these souls and positions that the current government's strategy rested upon.

            General Hwang Jin relieved Kim Cheon-il and took over the six thousand strong garrison. Many though, were quickly recruited like the girl with brown hair's male relatives. These and a handful of warriors were charged with holding off an invading army that utterly dwarfed the General's number. His enemy's army was one that had been at war for centuries, refining the arts of war. And now it was here, at the fortress of Jinju, with its majestic river and stout hearted conscripts that held the fate of the entire country. From the high keep of the castle, Hwang surveyed the currently vacant environs of the fortress: it would take a little while for the ships to land and for their commander to organise his troops into an assaulting formation, then to march those few miles to the fortress on foot. I have time. Are we ready? Yes. We are. We shall stand and fight. It shall be a great battle, whether we win or lose, but one I am determined that our defense will resound around all of Korea so that our enemy will think twice; a battle that will echo through the centuries. But, it will only be a battle once they scale the walls. And they will scale them. The only real questions are of time and casualties. And of duels. A battle of armies is just a multitude duels, and in a duel, each man has a chance of victory. That is only if we fail to hold them with our lead and arrows. We shall test their resolve with our cannon and wait. The greatest duel would be that of minds: his and his adversary: General Kato. Until then, until that point when they breach the walls with our solid Korean stone, it will be a dance. A dance of arrows and bullets and shot. Then if they are still dancing, we shall engage as long as our flag is standing. Hwang squinted his eyes as he focused. He could see that the samurai had landed a few miles away – the fortress overlooked a river, the river Ham a few miles from the coast. He called his junior officers together before addressing the men with powerful and stirring oratory.

            If Kim Si-min could repulse a Japanese force for three days with ladders, siege towers and volleys of musket fire with similar numbers against a similar enemy, then surely we can. Even if they are fiftheen times our number and thirty times Kim's forces. We have to hold like he did. Looking at the place where the last General fell defending this fort gave him a new sense of hope and a vigour in which to invest into his troops.

            He told his musketeers, both those with the captured arquebuses and the self-styled Korean hand-gun, to get into position among the strategically dotted firing holes and wait. Hwang remonstrated that he had significantly more handguns with their simple mechanism and gunstock shafts than the commandeered enemy firearms. But that was his lot, his karma. A General must do the best he can with the tools he has to work with. Additionally, Hwang amassed his archers, armed with laminated composite bows along the walls that followed the serpentine mountain edges. Where the wall was weakest, the General placed his powerful Hwacha contraption behind the crumbling masonry and cracked stone. While this Hwacha may have been archaic and antiquated as part of the Korean military arsenal and in comparison to the Chinese military, it could still fire two hundred arrows and when one is out numbered by incredible odds, it with help immensely in the coming struggle – for moral if nothing else. His best contingent of close quartered soldiers that he used as his bodyguard were stationed there, arranged in three rows of twenty men. This was merely a formality: the General knew that the fort wouldn't hold if that section of the wall was breached, it would be like a damn breaking: it would flood the river and valley completely. At the two highest points on the wall - the towers – Hwang had his black class cannons foddered and ready: the long tongues of flame from the braziers rose high above the wall. All the militia of the fortress had a job – to watch and be ready.  The refugees, some fifty thousand of them, could only find an alcove or shadow for which to hide in.

            The forward tower fired its black cannon during the hour of the dragon. The iron tipped wooden projectiles looked like a blind man's stick, but were more frightening than a dragon's roar. The rich plumes of soot rose high, drifting out to sea along the coast. The force of the cannon left shallow craters in the land as the samurai and peasant regiments moved into position. They came from the lowlands of the coast, the mountains and some of the trails. They were surrounding the fortress. Hwang's iron shot frighten the samurai's horses which had to be dismounted, and the peasants were gravely concerned, rapidly looking around the battlefield for the next bombardment in their straw hats, clutching desperately to the simple muskets. At five hundred meters, the enemy were without reply. Then as the sun is bold, the samurai General, Kato came into view. It must have been him: such arrogance, such defiance, such bravery. Hwang admired his enemy before a hail of bullets and arrows were fired back towards the fortress. An arrow lodged in Hwang’s left arm, he refused to take cover, he would not cower from the enemy. Kato had quickly organised his projectile units to engage the enemy while the samurai advanced followed by the rest of the peasantry. The colourful flags of the samurai upon their backs fluttered in the wind, a wonderful myriad of splendour, each displaying their lord’s banner that they proudly served. As the enemy marched and grappled up the steep side of the rampant, they made a great cacophony even amongst a backdrop of gunfire.

            At three hundred yards, Hwang signaled to his gunners to fire. The deathly wind swept the forlorn regiments. Vicious spherical bullets ripped through the ornate and effete armour of the samurai warriors and into hearts, stomachs and lungs. The peasants that were hit fell much quickly and bemoaned intensely. Some of the ill disciplined peasant tried to flee, but were cut down by their own officers under the meteoric storm of Korean missiles. Hwang's archers and gunners fired greatly in excess of the two shots of the previous campaigns, but still the enemy pressed. The once tranquil morning sky was as night with all the black smoke, so much so, that Hwang and many of the soldiers on the watchtowers did not see the ladders advancing. However, advance they did: over the ulcerating ground, over mangled bodies with the innards running down the slope, over their lord's banners. Hwang drew his Japanese made sword and wailed louder to fire another volley, and another and another; to reload faster, but it made no difference: the enemy were relentless, and now at the foot of the wall with their ladders and their swords eager for savagery and glory. Now they begin: the duels that will reveal my fate.

            To Hwang's flanks, his hand gunners were leaning over the walls picking off the enemy as they stumbled up the ladders, yet still they advanced with a number that was vast beyond reckoning, there deep ranks masked by the blackness of gunpowder. To the handful of Korean swordsmen and spearmen that had waited patiently for death behind the gunners and archers, Hwang gave them the order to get ready. The samurai and peasants of the Japanese army fought with the bullets and arrows to reach the summit of the ladders in order to place their hands upon the tops of the walls of the worked Korean stone, blood staining the ivory finish. In the first wave, the defenders were ripped apart by greater swordsmanship and skill. Yet, the line held. With each weapon that was dropped, one of the civilian refugees would pick it up and scale a wall or attach themselves to a courtyard detachment, the previous host's blood curdling with their sweat and trepidation. To everyone's surprise, the defender's held on that first day. And the second and the third. In fact it was nine days that they held their lines.

            It took nine blood-drenching days for Kato and his engineers to find a weak spot: the wall where the Hwacha was stationed. It cost the lives of hundreds of samurai and numerous peasants to discover the chink, but it was discovered. On the tenth day, during the hour of the hare, the Japanese columns advanced once more. The weary, exhausted cannoneer's of the tower's fired their weapons once more, killing, maiming. The soot-faced cannoners did not see the Tortoise shell cart that had almost been smuggled next to the weak spot of the wall as if it were a pirate’s cove. It was only when a mighty rumble from beneath the ground that Hwang and all the defenders knew that the Japanese sappers had broken through. Carnage and fear broke lose as they feared the gods had deserted them. The enemy discarded their ladders and other cumbersome siege towers charging into the breach. The first attackers lead a banzai charge. They were filled with a multitude of arrows from the archaic Hwacha stationed there, before Hwang's elite guards charged with their long spears. Hwang signaled to his new personal guard to follow him down the stone steps to hit the enemy in the flank, which they did to great effect, but it was not enough.

            Kato saw the Hwacha reduce the first column almost entirely. He thanked Hachiman for sparing him this fate. Yet eager for glory, he personally led the second that smashed into the thin shaky Korean line. It was then as Kato passed the gaping hole in the old wall, its loosened masonry tumbling hazardously, that he caught a glimpse of a Korean officer engaging samurai with a Japanese blade. It was Hwang. Kato sliced the heads of three Korean’s before he could engage Hwang. Their murderous eyes locked. The preface of a duel was underway. They raised their swords above their heads and charged. Everything else was oblivious to them. After two moves of the duel, the wound in Hwang’s arm was beginning to cause him great distress and disadvantage. All around him he could see his lines were being overrun. Samurai were slaughtering, running up towards the walls, towers and the keep. The flames of scorched earth began to emit a toxic vapour. Hwang knew that the battle was over, now all was left was for Hwang to die with honour. He removed his helmet exposing his face to the heavens casting a look at the gods that reside there. Then he charged at Kato. Hwang fell at his enemy’s sword: a blow to the stomach followed by a swift taking of his head. The rest were butchered at his feet.

            After ten desperate days of hard fighting, mortar, melee and death on all sides Jinju fortress fell to the Japanese military juggernaut. Sixty thousand heads were taken, though only nine thousand were soldiers. That number included General Hwang. His decapitated head was scented and shipped back to his lord; Hideyoshi. The rest were civilians. The militia army was defeated by a force that only the gods could stop.

            The Ham River ran crimson with blood: even Admiral Yi saw from his distant naval base.