It’s not that anyone forgets. It’s just that other things get in the way.
In the third village, when the name Hwal Bin Dang was still associated with dismal failure and it was more of a curse than a blessing to house the King’s most wanted thieves, an old farmer lets them use his fields for camp grounds. Villagers come day and night asking them to please leave, can’t they see the attention they’re drawing from nearby officials and the danger they’re attracting to a group of poor, simple peasants who just want to live in peace? Can’t they just go?
Gil Dong thrashes about the camp grounds, kicking anything his long legs can reach, cursing to the high heavens the ungrateful and fickle nature of man, but the thieves of the inner circle – Mal Nyeo, Soo Geun, Yeon, Gom, and yes, even lovely Yi Nok – knew better than to believe his childish tantrum. The villagers’ lack of faith did more than anger Gil Dong; it hurt him. Though the thieves of the inner circle would have done anything to protect the reputation of Hwal Bin Dang, they knew that the villagers were justified in their fear. After the Massacre of the Palace, the King tightened his grip on the throne and it was the people who suffered.
Words weren’t enough to change impossible living conditions or to alleviate harsh taxes. Hwal Din Dang had to work to win their supporters back, one village at a time. In the frenzy of this work, training and traveling, fighting and planning, day and night, there can be no time to think of marriages or lost love, for which Yi Nok is grateful. Little Doe-Eyes has grown up, Soo Geun whispers to Mal Nyeo, his voice a warm gust in her ear. Looking at the subdued girl in the field, the one pointedly not looking at the leader who is staring at her, May Nyeo says nothing.
After they depose the third village’s government official, a short man with a thin, snarling mouth, the thieves begin training all the villagers fit for combat. When we leave, you must be able to protect yourselves, Gil Dong announces to a cheering village, newly converted and united under the Hwal Bin Dang flag. When they’re done, the villagers throw them a feast as a last farewell gift. The farmer’s wife sits next to Yi Nok by the fire and strokes her hair.
“Such a beautiful girl,” the farmer’s wife murmurs and Yi Nok smiles at her around the large chicken leg she’s devouring.
“And her eyes!” Soo Geun interjects, casually placing a large hand on Mal Nyeo’s knee. With a flick of her wrist, she slaps his knuckles with her fan and, hissing and smiling both, Soo Geun retracts the offending limb.
“Yes,” the farmer’s wife agrees. “A beautiful girl with lovely eyes. How are you not married yet, my dear?”
From his own spot by Soo Geun, Gil Dong tenses. His joking conversation with Gom comes to an abrupt halt and, oblivious both to the leader’s sudden silence and Yi Nok’s own lack of chewing, the woman goes on.
“Surely someone has proposed to you already, my dear. Did you refuse them? With your looks, you could refuse princes and kings, if you’d like.”
Yi Nok doesn’t know what to say. She thinks of seeing Gil Dong on that awful day, telling him that Kwang Hwe knew about their plan and had something ready as a result, though she wasn’t sure what. She remembers the way he looked at her in her red guard’s outfit, all smiles and joy at her very presence, and how that was what made her decision.
“I’ve made my decision, Gil Dong,” she told him. “I can’t be a Queen. I’ll go and warn the rebels now and then I’ll wait for you in the hideout. Chang Hwi can be King. I’ll just be a thief, like you. With you.”
And Gil Dong’s face, the way it became even brighter, a million times brighter than any crown could be, made her heart thunder in her chest.
“Dummy,” he laughed. “My foolish little dummy. I’ll see you when this is all over.”
She nodded and ran off then. Foolish little dummy.
“I’m surprised you haven’t proposed,” the farmer’s wife turns to Gil Dong. Yi Nok looks at Gil Dong then, the first time in months, and gives him a small smile of understanding, telling him that she’s older now, no longer a little dummy, and she knows that whatever they were on that day when she dressed like a Palace guard and he like a hopeful lover can no longer be.
“I did,” Gil Dong says, surprising them both.
“Oh,” says the farmer’s wife. “What happened?”
“I’m still waiting for an answer.”
Betrayed, Yi Nok looks away.
There’s a wealthy tailor in the eleventh town. By then, the Hwal Bin Dang name was no longer synonymous with failure, but with liberation. Villagers wait for the arrival of Hwal Bin Dang like rainfall after a lifetime of drought. Every peasant in the kingdom follows the path of the thieves and waits for the day the great heroes will enter their own town. Young women and men leave their homes, with the tears and blessing of their parents, to join up with the famous band of liberators. Soon, the organization becomes so large, Gil Dong makes the decision to divide Hwal Bin Dang. Divided into groups, members of Hwal Bin Dang fan out in the kingdom. Gil Dong oversees them and, with the inner circle and a select few, takes on the hardest officials himself.
The wealthiest tailor in the eleventh town, a woman of upright moral standing and respect in the city, offers each thief a new set of clothing.
“The people believe in you now,” she tells the inner circle in the confines of her parlor. “Your reputation and name alone is enough to rally their spirits, long before you ever arrive. Numerous painters and artists have illustrated your victories. For them, you must dress the part of the hero. The soldier’s armor is as much to instill hope in his people and fear in the enemy as it is to protect him in battle. Let me help you in this.”
Unable to refute such logic and motivated by more than a little bit of vanity, the thieves agree. After they get their measurements drawn, the thieves joke about their new appearances. What should they do to better match their new reputations as heroes? Gom suggests Gil Dong straightens his hair, causing their illustrious leader to clutch at his curly mop in horror. Soo Geun and Yeon grab Gil Dong and hold him down while Mal Nyeo holds a pair of scissors over his head.
Yi Nok can’t stop herself from laughing. She’s been having that problem more and more lately. The past is still there, but its presence dims every day. Learning from Mal Nyeo, training with Yeon, laughing with Soo Geun, and mock fighting with Gom, Yi Nok feels lighter with every sunrise. When she sleeps, she no longer dreams of burning palaces or dead princes who will never know of her betrayal. Instead, she hears the distant calls of tigers waiting for the hunt.
“I can do it,” Yi Nok blurts out and they stare at her for a second before bursting into laughter.
“Are you sure about this, Doe-Eyes?” Soo Geun asks.
“We don’t want to lose our leader in a haircut accident,” Gom adds.
“Do you even know how to hold scissors?” Gil Dong shouts before clutching his sides again, doubled over in laughter. Annoyed, Yi Nok marches over to stand in front of him.
She holds up her fists and says, a perfect echo of the girl who stepped off the boat from China just years before, “I can do it, Gil Dong. Believe in me.”
Though the others laugh even harder than before, Gil Dong’s chuckles calm and cease.
Looking at Yi Nok’s right hand, barely an inch away from his own, Gil Dong says, “Yes. Yes, alright.”
They will never overthrow the King. They know that now and what’s more, after three years, the thieves of Hwal Bin Dang aren’t sure that they want to. They have witnessed, among their own, the corruptive effects of power on even the most honorable of thieves. They have seen their brothers and sisters liberate a village only to assume power themselves. They have all felt the temptations of wealth and fame – all of them, that is, save for their leader, Gil Dong, and his inner circle. There isn’t a Hwal Bin Dang thief, and there are thousands upon thousands of Hwal Bin Dang thieves, who doesn’t feel a rush of loyalty and awe when they think of ruthless Mal Nyeo, brave Soo Geun, strong Yeon, devoted Gom, quick Yi Nok, and perfect Gil Dong.
Gil Dong and his inner circle infiltrate and defeat the most powerful of lords with skill and ease. Gil Dong’s black sunglasses and half-smile are as much a threat to every greedy official as they are a comfort to the people. In him, the downtrodden of Kwang Hwe’s kingdom see a new future – where the honorable always come out victorious and joy accompanies every battle.
After yet another victory, where Gil Dong makes his entrance by showing up late on a roof as though he had all the time in the world, Yi Nok makes her way into Gil Dong’s hut in the hideout and wakes him up with a shout in his ear.
Gil Dong jumps up, his sunglasses flying off his face with the sudden movement, and cries out, “What now, dummy? Your leader needs his rest!”
“You told me to come by after we beat this last lord, Gil Dong,” Yi Nok replies. “I can go.”
Gil Dong jumps up and grabs her arm.
“No, no,” he says. “I want to go hunting.”
So they do. Sitting on a tree limb, her eyes and ears scanning the woods, Yi Nok dangles her legs back and forth. The light of the summer sun falls through the leaves of the trees and, like so many fawning maidens dream, kisses Gil Dong’s hands, his neck, his cheeks and the corner of his smirking mouth. It kisses all the places Yi Nok wants to touch and so she looks away, trying to calm her burning cheeks with trembling hands.
“Problem, dummy?” Gil Dong asks.
“No,” she answers. “I’m hungry.”
Gil Dong reaches into his bag and throws her three buns. She munches on them happily – her favorite! – and barely notices when he moves closer to her on the tree limb.
“Let’s hunt like old times. When the tiger comes by, I’ll push you in front of it. While it chases you, I’ll knock it unconscious,” he says.
Yi Nok gives a small snarl. “No way. You be the bait this time.”
“Okay,” Gil Dong says and the sound of his voice, so soft and serious, makes Yi Nok’s heart burst into flames. “Fair enough. I’ll be the bait this time.”
“I’ll be the bait this time and every other,” Gil Dong promises. “I’ll let the tiger chase me around while you aim. I’ll always carry enough food with me, enough to feed five grown men, and you can always have the last hot bun in the bag. Yi Nok, you promised to marry me years ago and a lot of things have stepped in the way of that, but, if you hold true to your word, I will to mine.”
Yi Nok tries to think of Lady Noh and of her unknown mother, of Chang Hwi and her departed grandfathers, tries to think of them all and finds that she can’t. She can only think of Gil Dong, has only ever been able to think of Gil Dong, who was so kind to her when no one else was, who made her laugh when she had nothing but burdens to bear, who died and returned to her time and time again.
“Gil Dong, do you remember when I told you I love you?” Yi Nok asks, her mouth shaping around the familiar foreign phrase.
“Yes,” he answers.
“Do you know what that means?” she asks.
“What does it mean?”
“It means you won’t need to wear yellow sunglasses as long as I’m around. It means I’ll never burn another pouch you sew. It means – ”
“Gil Dong, I love you I love you I love you,” Yi Nok says and hopes that it’s enough of an answer for the question he’s asking.
“Dummy,” Gil Dong says, giving her shoulder a light cuff with his knuckles before wrapping her small hand in his own. “Dummy, dummy, dummy. How did I ever get stuck with such a dummy?”
They wait until the fall to get married. Yeon and Soo Geun insist that every member of Hwal Bin Dang should get to chance to return and attend the wedding. For three days and three nights, the hideout is aglow with festivities and when, on the third night, Gil Dong calls an end to the celebration and carries his bride to their room, he does so amidst friendly jeers.
“What’s the hurry?” Soo Geun shouts, drunk from wine and Mal Nyeo’s arm around his waist. “You have a whole lifetime ahead.”
And they do.