Word arrives at camp right at dawn. The general’s troops are locked in a dead heat battle with the full brunt of the Hun’s gathered forces at the Tung Shao Pass. It took the messenger a two day ride to get to the training grounds and it’ll be a three day march with the unit to meet them at the pass.
Mushu says, “Oh goody, now we’ll get you some real experience!” and claps, as though he senses the opportunity to gain Mulan glory and wants to seize it with both of his grubby little talons. Mulan has no say in the matter anyway - everyone is already packing up and readying for battle. Ling and Yao actually seem excited, elbowing each other and racing to see who can take down the tents and roll everything into a travel-friendly package the fastest while Chien Po peacefully looks on.
Mulan gently pulls apart her little home on the edge of camp, patting the tree trunk and feeling a surprising amount of nostalgia. This was where she became a man, so to speak. Where she learned how to be.
Mushu provides unhelpful but entertaining commentary as she does her best to scramble in packing up her little life here and catch up to the group after dawdling. They’d only just mastered aiming the cannons yesterday, so she hopes they won’t be expecting her to be on cannon duty. She doesn’t think that would go too well.
They trek on foot past waterfalls and steep hillsides, through rice paddies and rivers and cabbage fields, young women giggling among each other at all the strapping young soldiers on display. Ling, Chien Po, and Yao won’t shut up about the ideal woman to come home to and the other soldiers’ encouragement doesn’t help. Mulan just wishes she could kick back in the cart and nap on top of the cannons. No one would need to know. She’s already loosening her grip on Khan’s reins when a shout rings out ahead. “We’re here!” the men say, echoing one after another. They’re here!
Mulan crests the snowy hill to see what all the fuss is about. Over the hill and among the snowfall sits a sweet village, but the homes stand empty of families and are filled instead with military officers coming and going. Hundreds of tents line the streets in orderly rows. Imperial horses in great number are stabled at the outskirts and thankfully they’re upwind of the smell. A lookout shouts ahead to notify the stationed troops that reinforcements have arrived.
General Li comes out of one of the houses that seems to be homebase for the war room and greets Shang with a proud pat on the back and when that doesn’t seem to suffice, gives him a hug that looks as though it surprises Shang. The unit is rounded up and shown to their quarters, an unused stretch of street plump with the falling snow.
“Sleep well tonight, troops. Tomorrow, the real battle begins,” Shang both advises and warns, that threatening undertone of listen to me or you’ll regret it, better take my word for it ever present.
On day one of real battle, nothing much happens. Mulan is rear guard and they’re trying to ease her troop into the big leagues. They march forward, then stand still for a long time waiting. Hearing the sounds of actual war, but Mulan at least is too short to actually see anything happening.
On day two, Mulan takes down two men. It’s out of self defense and she doesn’t feel great about it, but again it was to save her own skin and to be fair they did look like bad guys, just objectively! She uses her shield more than her sword, which prevents further injury on both sides. There are no familiar faces here, all the soldiers assigned their role based on skill, but their position randomly. For a moment, she takes in how long it’s been since she was able to just sit down and talk to another woman, another sane human being. It’s been too long for sure and Cri-Kee and Khan just don’t count, great company though they are. Also, still male. She can’t catch a break. Even with the partial access to the fighting, Mulan has a lot of time to think to herself as they hold position, which is never a good thing.
On day three, she crosses swords with Shan Yu himself.
A Hun with a hammer charges at her and knocks her very soul from her chest, swinging hard into the center of her chestplate. The massive dent it leaves immediately constricts her breathing, feels like it’s actually crushing her, and she yanks at the buckles and straps to tear it off just to be able to breathe. The Hun who dealt the blow is busy dealing with another soldier attacking his side who leapt to her defense. What a nice guy. Then a shadow is cast, something frightening blocking out the sun. No, not a something. A man with a hawk. Shan Yu has taken to the battlefield and like a mirage, he’s standing right in front of her, is upon her like a thunderbolt, not there and then suddenly so very very present. Hard to miss a man like him, if indeed he can be called a man. She scrambles off the churned snow and raises her sword; naturally, the fearsome Shan Yu takes that as an invitation. The monster bears down on her with a jagged blade and she dodges for her life, scurrying back.
Then she realizes she’s being a coward - she stops in her step and plants her feet, setting her jaw and meeting his devil’s eyes with the most fearsome look she can muster. In short, Fa Mulan prepares to die with her father’s sword in hand.
But she’s moved far back enough another Hun soldier intervenes from the right, the helmet partially obstructing her peripheral vision. The slash of the scimitar is an instant and white hot pain down the center of her chest. Mulan cries out at first in shock and then outrage, rejoining with a sharp jab of her father’s sword through the ribs, swinging back around to cut the man down decisively. She takes a sheer moment to pant as she surveys the battlefield for further threats with sharp eyes. And boy is there one.
Shan Yu and even his hawk are staring at her with an echo of something like astonishment on his face and she watches it mold into something sharper, stranger. He’s not looking at her face. Mulan glances down, then her heart seizes as she tugs frantically at the torn sides of her shirt to wrap around her exposed chest. She looks up in terror.
A swarm of battling men part them, shielding Mulan from his piercing golden eyes as clouds give shelter from the sun, providing enough confusion and cover to rip off her shoulder pauldrons and steal a shirt from one of her fallen fellows like the thief in the night she has proven herself to be. She jams it over everything she’s already wearing and yanks the pauldrons back on. Father’s chest plate is lost for good, strewn somewhere and heavily damaged. Mulan grabs her sword and her shield and runs back the way she came.
“What’s wrong, my friend?” Chien Po inquires gently over dinner. “Something troubles you.”
“Oh, I - um, I’m just worried about my family. I bet they’re pissed at me - I mean missing me! I bet they’re missing me.”
Mulan understandably does not sleep well that night, worrying and worrying and worrying. “There’s no way he’s gonna tell the Imperial army you’re a - “ She hushes Mushu and he whispers back, “How are they gonna talk? Come on Mulan, it’s gonna be fine,” drawing out the ‘f’ so his upper lip flaps. Wiping the spit off her face, Mulan really doubts it.
The Huns ride down the mountain on horseback for the next three days and only half the Imperial army has horses. Mounted soldiers take the vanguard and foot soldiers like Shang’s unit take up the rear. There’s a bit of knocking together in the tight quarters and ever clumsy, Mulan finally trips and bruises her backside with the fall. It brings her close enough to the ground to provide a new perspective, spying a weakness in the Hun’s horseback approach. She scrambles up and runs back through the battle formation to the village, Shang shouting at her to hold position and her completely ignoring it. He can thank her later!
In the smithy that’s serving as the army’s main armory, she grabs the longest length of thin rope she can find. Rifling through the smithy’s stores wins her a few metal stakes. Winded and panting, Mulan jogs back to battle, squeezing through Imperial soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder. She breaks the line and runs ahead, a single person in a pocket empty of fighting. At the western edge of the fighting, Mulan drives the stake into the ground, jumping on top of it to shove it as deep as it can go. Looping the rope through the eye of the stake and tying it tightly down, Mulan dashes east across the field as fast as she can, letting rope fall slack behind her. She runs until the rope pulls taut. The second stake gets the same treatment, rope tied around it and jumped on to get it hard packed into the frozen dirt.
She jogs back to the line to try and find Shang. “Soldier!” he shouts. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Resting her hands on her knees as she sucks in air, Mulan advises, “When the Huns come down the mountain, fall back.”
“Fall back? And why would we do that?” Shang asks with sarcasm laden.
“I set a trap - “
There’s a howling in the wind, and it’s the Huns, thundering over the hill on dark horses, weapons brandished. They’re coming on strong, the work of powerful chest muscles in both men and beastly horses obvious even at this distance.
“Do you trust me?” Mulan entreats him.
“Ping, I - “
“Do you trust me?” she says it more firmly this time, raising her voice. Shang looks to the heavens and swears to himself. He shakes his head, once, twice, then yells, “Troops! Fall back! Fall back!”
Mulan beams and follows the confused troops in their backwards movement, spears held out at the front of the line. The Huns are nearly on top of them now and even from this distance, she can barely make out the thin rope clasped tight between the stakes, spanning the middle of the field. “Come on, come on, come on,” she whispers to herself. And then, there it is. The first horse trips, then the next as the Huns ride without any kind of formation. It’s a domino effect, horses at the front tripping and riders behind them bowling over them. They come crashing down like waves breaking on a shore. The soldiers around her stir in amazement and Shang looks flabbergasted like he hadn’t actually expected it to work, then his expression hardens into determination. “Charge!” he bellows, fully in command.
The Imperial army charges forward to engage the unseated Huns on foot and the battle goes very well for her side. Mushu is very supportive and generous with his praise when she crawls into her tent that night. Dancing around, he shouts “Glory for you! Glory for your cow! Glory for me and Cri-Kee! Mulan, you’ve done it again!”
She holds a hand up to cover his mouth and shushes him. “Thank you,” she says with happiness laced through. “But we don’t want the whole army to know you’re in here.”
“Ping?” someone calls from outside the tent. Mulan hisses at Mushu to be quiet and pokes her head out of the tent. It’s Yao and Ling. Yao is twiddling his fingers.
“Yes?” she asks, then hurries to repeat it in a deep baritone. “I mean, yes?”
“What you did back there . . . it was amazing!” Ling says. “What he’s trying to say is thank you,” Yao snaps, dropping his hands and folding his arms across his chest, the confession making him defensive.
“Thank you?” Mulan parrots.
“You’re welcome!” Ling points and laughs. Yao thumps him over the head, but refuses to add to the statement. Ling explains, “We think we would have been goners back there if not for you, Ping.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that - “
“Well, we do and we’re grateful! We just wanted to say that, no matter what Shang does.”
“What - what Shang does?”
“Well, you did disobey a direct order,” Ling reasons.
“Oh no . . . ” She genuinely hadn’t thought about it, everything so chaotic after the battle they hadn’t spotted each other again.
Sure enough, come sunrise Mulan is disciplined - Shang has her scrubbing buckets and doing menial labor for the day. It’s a pretty mild punishment and that’s probably because her scheme worked. Really, really well, she thinks with a grin, scrubbing a little harder.
She lies awake at night with arms tense at her sides, jolting every now and then, bracing to punch. She’s ready, can’t stop being ready. Mulan wonders if her father ever felt this way after the repeated heat of battle, needing more of what’s bad for you, what you objectively do not like - tasting something sour and needing more of that flavor to rinse back through again. Her enemy’s eagle eyes gleam like lanterns in the dark, lit from within and troubling her waking dreams. She wonders what those teeth would feel like on her neck. She’d do anything to fight him again, spoiling for a fight, waiting and hungering for him to crop up again like a weed. Not suited for the rage of war, her butt.
But there is one way in which she is genuinely not suited for battle and aside from extreme clumsiness, it’s because she is not legally allowed to be here.
It happens like this: Mulan is leaning over to tug up her stockings in a quiet moment on the battlefield. The main strategy has been to lie in wait for Huns to come down the mountain, which they do both days, in order to avoid a literal uphill battle. There’s fighting happening at the front and some off to the side, but it’s a pocket of peacefulness here in the middle of formation. So she’s bent over fastening her stockings and when she straightens back up, her hair tie tears on the spear of the soldier in front of her with a loud ripping sound. She stands stock still and hopes no one has noticed, gathering the hair up frantically again. But the soldier next to her is already looking at her strangely and says “Hey - “
“What?” Mulan acts like she has no idea what his deal is and holds her hair back to preserve the image of manliness. “Uh,” she says in her deepest baritone yet, “Got a hair tie?”
The soldier nudges the guy next to him and points at her. “I think - “ Another man from behind pulls her hand down, setting her hair free to fall in her face. “A woman!” someone gasps.
“I’m not a woman, you are!” she points and accuses to distract the other soldiers and then tries to run for it. They catch her by the shoulder and arms and drag her kicking and rowdy to General Li at the center of the formation.
General Li looks surprised to see her. “A woman?” he asks. It’s funny how hard she tried to fit into the role as Mulan but as Ping she can never seem to outrun it. “I - “ Mulan begins, but the general cuts his hand through the air sharply. Traditionally minded and relentlessly bound to the honor of military law, she looks in his face and sees that he knows he has no choice but to carry out the ultimate and only penalty for impersonation: death.
Mulan is dragged to her knees and held there, made to bow with her head forward. Mulan gulps and Cri-Kee gives a frantic squeal. He draws his sword from its sheath. General Li, a man she admires even, is going to kill her for her dishonor, right here on the battlefield in front of all these friends and foes. This is how it happens. God, she knew it might happen but she never imagined it actually would. The sword raises. She doesn’t squeeze her eyes shut and she doesn’t cry - those reactions would imply she’s feeling anything at all in this absolute daze. Ancestors! she has time to think -
And then a miracle happens. A wild ululating battle call rings out and suddenly the Huns are crashing forward into the absolute stillness of this grim ceremony like the rushing tide. The hands holding her down disappear, only to be replaced by ones that yank and hoist her into the air. “What the - ” She’s thrown onto a towering Hun’s bare shoulder. Hun warriors rip into the gathered soldiers who begin to beat a hasty retreat, those that can escape. She doesn’t see the general anywhere.
The Hun carrying her like a sack of grain breaks out into a run in the opposite direction, which is emphatically where she does not want to be. But only ritual death remains behind her. And she likes her head attached to shoulders. And if she somehow managed to sneak into camp, grab her horse, and ride home? They’d find her there, too, and would punish the whole family for her insolence. Here’s hoping they’ll be spared by virtue of their ignorance and innocence in the matter. And as the bump and bounce of her ride cruelly jabs and tears at her chest wound, she realizes there is very little hope at all for her now. Her heart’s beating so fast it feels like she’s about to explode. The man snags a horse and rides it up the mountain with her bouncing on his shoulder.
Mulan is lugged rough and tumble to the heart of Hun camp high on the jagged hills that precede the mountains proper. Well, camp such as it is - no beds or shelter, only furs and wool blankets rolled out on the naked earth and patches of snow, crude weaponry laying about everywhere, collected from dead clansmen no doubt. The towering Hun dismounts and carries her into the only tent in the camp and sets her before a seated Shan Yu with no ceremony. Mulan meets his gaze evenly, numb yet also pissed off.
“What do you want?” She challenges him with her disrespectful tone, expecting no intelligent reply from a brute who cannot speak her language. “Answers,” he says in a deep, ringing voice with a likeness to rolling thunder. She’s struck dumb by that, not sure of what answers he might mean and wanting to avoid setting off this group of unpredictable wildmen now that she knows she will be understood.
“What business does a woman have in a Chinese army?” Shan Yu asks with a birdlike tilt of the head. His accent is nonexistent.
“None,” apparently, she adds mentally.
“And yet here you stand.” She’s standing before him where her own general put her on her knees in ignominy before death. That’s worth something, means something. In spite of herself, Mulan begins to hope.
“Here I am.” Mulan wants to spread her arms, present herself with confidence, and it’s the numb and silly thinking of a person struck numb and silly by shock. Instead she stands with her arms by her sides, keeping her shoulders stacked and tall by sheer willpower; it takes a lot to not hunch defensively in this horrifying situation out of the depths of nightmare itself. But if she’s dying, she’s doing it standing tall and with a straight back like her father taught her, even if she usually wasn’t listening. She can be strong - she will be strong.
“I chose this. As the best of few options,” she says defensively.
“Well . . .” She wonders to herself if it’s even worth explaining if she’s going to die anyway, but it’s nice to have an audience to the dilemma that she was faced with. “I dressed as a man to join the army. And stole my father’s armor to impersonate a soldier, so I could save his life. He was injured in the last war and can’t walk without a cane. When the Huns - when you invaded the wall, the emperor ordered that one man from every house in China serve his country.”
“No brothers, I take it.”
Shan Yu appears to ponder this for a time, chin resting on a fist. “And this is a dishonor in this land?”
“One of the greatest imaginable.” Mulan blinks and has trouble forcing her eyelids back open, wanting with all her being to look away from this blinding reality, this place, these people, this unbelievable moment. It’s quiet for a minute and then Shan Yu gestures with his hand, speaking a few words in their foreign tongue. She tracks every movement in the area with alertness she can’t and wouldn’t want to shake.
Shan Yu stands and the motion brings him closer to her, makes her want to cower even though it only translates into a minor twitch, which she’s proud of. He turns a half circle around her and Mulan fights not to follow to keep him away from her blindside. “You’re bleeding.” Oh. She looks down and yes, so she is.
An older Hun with a white beard and a stern expression appears within the tent to take her by the elbow and Shan Yu appears to permit this, dismissing them with a wave of his hand. She’s walked to the edge of camp and sat down, taking a moment to check her pocket for Cri-Kee who chirps at her worriedly. The old man, who must be what passes for a doctor among this bunch, unrolls a leather pack of tinctures and ointments and so on. He begins plucking at her shirt and she says, “Hey! I’ll do it.” She turns her shoulder mulishly, but realizes if she turns any further, she’ll be facing camp. A camp full of men. With a sinking feeling, she tugs the shirt open and holds the sides down tightly to make sure she’s covered while still exposing the wound. Blood has smeared around and the bruising is dark-looking. Mulan glances up to gauge the doctor’s take on it.
“Will I live?” she asks jokingly.
The doctor doesn’t answer, and maybe he doesn’t understand her or doesn’t care to acknowledge a woman. He dabs the wound dry with a cloth, rubs a gross smelling and looking ointment, then hands her a wide roll of thick woven bandages. “What am I supposed to do with this?” He mimes wrapping it around her chest. She twirls her finger and raises an eyebrow, gesturing for him to turn around. Mulan wraps herself again as fast as humanly possible, keeping the fabric very snug to the skin. Closing the shirt, she doesn’t allow the doctor to inspect her work and instead stands. She mimes drinking water and he walks her to a supply area with a full waterskin. Quenching her thirst has never felt so good, so luxurious.
She wonders what happens now. The doctor procures a long fur and another water skin, this time ladelling water from a boiling pot into it. He hands her the hot water skin and leads her to a bare patch of earth at the heart of camp. Gesturing to the ground and he raises an expectant eyebrow at her and turns to leave. Mulan doesn’t ask any more questions. The earth is slanted, high on a hill in an easily defensible position. She is exhausted and surprisingly still breathing. Laying down, placing the hot waterskin right under her toes, pulling the fur over herself and crossing her hands over her stomach, Mulan prays for rest as the sun dips below the horizon.
Mulan doesn’t sleep for the first three nights with the Huns.
Sunset to sunrise, Mulan lies awake much like she had out of bloodlust back with the army, but now it’s out of unshakeable alertness in the presence of so many enemies. Listening to the crackle of the fires on the jagged hillside and snores of an uncivilized horde, she rests her eyes for a time and at length the sun makes itself known again. Cri-Kee chitters and shakes out his legs from a long night in the cold. Bored out of her mind, she rises with the earliest of them and finds the camp cook hard at work. He takes one look at her, chest unrestricted and hair laying down flat and correctly takes her for a woman. The cook puts her to work, though he only knows a few of her words and she knows none of his. Just have to find out the hard way she can’t cook worth a thing. A thick wheat porridge is stewing and it’s her job to stir the massive pot. Praying not to overturn the whole thing in typical Mulan fashion, she complies.
She stirs cautiously at first, then viciously as she notices some sticking to the bottom until the cook glares at her. The men begin to rise earnest and assemble slowly in front of the pot. The cook is toiling over some savory-looking toppings, so it looks like it’s her job to ladle food into bowls. And in a Hun war camp on Chinese land, Fa Mulan serves wheat porridge to wildmen invaders wearing her father’s armor as a badge of ultimate dishonor.
Some of the men look in askance at their bowls as if questioning whether it’s poisoned. That is, until the cook snaps at them and they move over to him for the rest of the meal. Mulan dishes up another bowl for the next hungry person in a sleepy daze, and the next, until it’s Shan Yu standing in front of her in all his fur-and-fanged glory. He inquires something to the cook, something like interest in his face, and the cook is grumpy but deferential in answering. Shan Yu says to her: “A warrior and a cook. Where else do your talents lie?”
“Farming,” she replies airily, nose in the air as she ladles his breakfast like she hasn’t a care in the world and hands it to the cook to top off the meal.
“A woman of many faces. Which one do you wear most freely, I wonder?” He always says everything like it’s a test, god it makes her nervous. Mulan’s never done well with tests.
“A man of many wisdoms but little respect knows nothing.” Ladelling porridge into the next bowl, she sneaks a peek at him to gauge his reaction to her own little test. Shan Yu doesn’t seem angry. Instead he responds with, “Respect is earned. But that’s not something you’ll need to worry about here,” and he sweeps an arm to take in the whole camp. Mulan blinks twice and goggles, but he’s already walking away and more men are converging on her for food.
Apparently satisfied with her work on breakfast, the cook enlists her for chopping and mashing things to prepare for dinner, root vegetables mostly. Food found in the north, near where the Huns breached the Wall. Trying not to think about it, Mulan focuses on the hand gestures showing her what to do next as they have little language in common. And she thinks instead about what Shan Yu meant about respect.
The cook keeps her occupied for most of the day, giving her two hours to rest between preparation and actually beginning to make dinner. She sits on the ground drinking water and resting her eyes, still sitting upright. Feeling some observers, she peeks at times but none of the Huns seem embarrassed to be caught looking. Maybe they think she’s meditating and they’ve heard about it but never seen it done. That, or maybe they’ve never seen a woman before.
With very limited skills, Mulan assists the cook in boiling the starchy tubers and cooking the other vegetables. Funny. She’d expected this crowd to be more of a . . . meat-eating type.
Mulan serves much the same role as at breakfast. And though it is easily the strangest situation she has ever found herself in, she can’t help but think, when in doubt, make yourself useful. Maybe if she makes herself indispensable, she’ll be spared. It doesn’t look like anyone here is going to stab her or anything, if anything they seem to be following Shan Yu’s lead of cool regard, which she can definitely get behind. Cool regard is great, cool regard is perfect.
Mulan doesn’t sleep that second night either, staring up at the stars and pondering her life direction.
Helping the cook kills some of the time while half the men go to battle for a few short hours. She’s sitting, trying and failing to relax on her fur throw for a bit when a big bird swoops overhead. Oh, he’s ripe for the picking.
The bird circles again and Mulan seizes her chance. Quick as a flash, she darts over to the bow and quiver of arrows lying discarded. Whipping the bow up, she takes aim and fires. The bird plummets, shot through the stomach is her guess.
Mulan resists the urge to fist pump to congratulate herself and begins to walk over to the bird before she realizes all the Huns around her have their swords, daggers, and maces drawn. She blinks, then gives a big sheepish grin that practically shouts ”I’m harmless!” as she sets the bow back on the ground and puts her hands in the air. Laughing a little nervously, Mulan isn’t sure explaining would help because they wouldn’t understand her anyway. Plus, the proof is lying right over there. She was just hungry and decided to supplement dinner with a bit of meat! Pointing to the bird over yonder, she hesitantly says, “Look, dinner!”
At this point, the cook throws his hands up and goes to fetch the bird, grumbling to himself. She decides she likes him. The Huns begin to put their weapons away as the cook comes round with the bird and belatedly Mulan realizes how very lucky she is that it wasn’t Shan Yu’s famed hawk companion.
The cook begins the long process of plucking the bird but doesn’t seem irritated by it. If anything, he’s more laidback than usual as he shows her how to properly cook and cut it to top off each man’s dinner, rattling off instructions in a language she can’t follow but can appreciate rolling tongue of.
The wildmen seem pleased by the addition of meat to their diet and at one point, one of the beefy men reaches a paw over to rub her head and roughly muss her hair. Mulan opts to take that as a sign of approval rather than disrespect and doesn’t comment on it.
At night, the cold wind shunts down the mountain and directly under the slight openings between her fur and the bare earth. She shivers in darkness and doesn’t think about the future, only minds the small dusting of snowflakes that briefly fall when the sun has sunk its lowest and the sky truly seems black.
She’s not fully awake and not fully asleep. This time, the cook turns her away when she makes grabby hands for the spoon to help cook up his next creation. Mulan wants to get more water but is too weary to muster the motivation to go fetch it. Instead, she returns to her humble fur and lays there with eyes closed for hours as things move and shift and clank around the camp.
At last, she drifts off in the middle of the day and dreams of nothing, the empty sleep of the truly exhausted, only waking when the men return weary and splattered in filth from a long day of fighting her countrymen. She could have pretended to sleep, waited until no one was looking, and snuck off. But to no end. There’s no one holding her hostage or keeping her prisoner here; the great cruelty of it is, they all know she’s already a prisoner of her situation. If she ran, she’d have nowhere to go. The nearest village and food source in this harsh winter is days away on foot and she has no map. She has no future with the Chinese military and her family has been harmed enough by her brash actions. Returning home is not an option. Mulan has nowhere to go.
So she helps with dinner, too.
Shan Yu’s right hand man sidles up to her the next morning and Mulan is ushered into the tent. Shan Yu is seated on a leather cushion, with a board of go before him, of all things. Practically genteel, he gestures for her to sit.
The game takes a very long time, each move carefully considered with fingers perched thoughtfully on chins, postures beginning to mirror each other as they pour over the board. Mulan catches herself at it multiple times and makes the pointed effort of straightening her back and shifting back. Shan Yu’s attention is wholly trained on the board. He’s so absorbed, she idly imagines she could play footsie with him and he wouldn’t notice. She can’t contain a small huff of a laugh at the thought, something Mushu would probably say, and he glances up at her at last, then studies the board harder as if it’s the only possible answer to the mystery of what she found fun. Maybe he thinks she’s laughing at him. But it is amusing to see him so wrapped up in a little game, to take it so seriously.
It takes hours to reach a decisive victory, but then again she’s never lost before so it was kind of a forgone conclusion. He stares at her with his eagle’s eyes and seems to fully take her in once again, never seeming to fail in that.
“I didn’t know Huns played this game,” she offers.
“We don’t.” Neither of them move to reset the board.
“Then you must be happy to have someone to play against.” She smiles wide and thinks make yourself indispensable, make yourself indispensable, make yourself indispensable.
He’s nonreactive, only considering her as if in deep thought. Then Shan Yu says something incomprehensible.
Shan Yu repeats it again and adds, “It means well played. You should learn our language.”
“Oh,” she demures, really not up to the task. “I don’t know about that - “
“He will teach you,” here, Shan Yu points to one of the guards standing outside the tent. He calls out and the towering muscle-bound man enters shirtless even with the snow still falling. Man these guys are tough. Mulan gulps.
”Yes," she says, the only word she knows because the cook said it over and over again to indicate she was finally boiling the mash correctly.
“Ah,” Shan Yu replies with a self-satisfied look, though what he’d be satisfied with himself about Mulan is completely in the dark. “I see you’re a natural.”
Lessons start that night, which mostly consist of the language instructor pointing to things or picking things up and naming them. Her head feels brimming over with new information and she doesn’t think she’ll hold onto any of it overnight.
The next morning, Mulan wanders over to some of the horses out of boredom after breakfast, language instructor nowhere to be found. Only to discover that Shan Yu’s horse loves her - she can tell it’s his because she saw him riding it on the battlefield once and also based on process of elimination because it’s easily the biggest and most evil-looking. The beast puffs air at her, fluttering her lopped off hair. Mulan laughs and brushes a hand down his soft fuzzy nose, then does it again because it’s so delightful. “You’re my friend aren’t you? Who’s a good horse?” Pressing her face to the side of the horse’s soothes the burn of missing Khan somewhat.
They’re all stolen, of course, and she wonders about the fate of all those who owned these horses before. She decides then that it’s out of sight, out of mind. She will only judge the Huns based on what she sees with her own two eyes. Clearly there’s been at least some misinformation.
When Mulan hauls a mammoth bag of grain practically her size from the edge of camp to the cookfire, the Huns appear impressed and pleased by this. One of them jabs a thumb in her direction and says something that makes a few of the others laugh. As is her way, she opts not to take it as an insult even if she does feel a little embarrassed by the point-and-laugh. But she could have sworn she heard Shan Yu’s name in there somewhere.
The ghoulish looking man Mulan has interpreted to be Shan Yu’s right hand questions her for any useful information as she helps prepare dinner. He has a distinctly snake-like look and she doesn’t imagine they’ll ever be best friends. “I’m not sharing battle plans with you because I don’t know any, alright? You think they trust a lowly foot soldier with these things?”
“War tactics, then? Where the campaign moves next, perhaps?” Mulan gives an earnest and hopeless shrug. Right Hand seems irritated but not angry. He leaves with a huff and Mulan goes back to peeling onions.
That night over a game of go, she circles back to something that’s been eating at her. “What you said about respect . . . what did you mean?” Shan Yu doesn’t appear to mind the broken silence.
“Among our people, women do not fight. But one who would sacrifice herself for family, even lying in order to do it, would be honored for her bravery.” He makes his next move. The Huns have a very different take on things, if what he says is true.
It’s proven to a certain degree when she spars with some of the more massive among their number, great big specimens of men that lumber as they walk, bore down by the weight of their musculature. One of them comes up to her and steals her away from her language lessons, points to where she should stand and says “there.” He tosses her a dagger from his waistband and brings his fists up to signal the beginning of the fight.
Striking forward, Mulan dodges and weaves like a hare, lets him wear himself out a little, then gets him off balance with a trip. She circles him and jumps, swinging around to pull him off his feet with the unexpected weight of her hanging off of him. She crouches on his chest with the dagger held to his throat, panting lightly from exertion. Mulan waits for the recognition of the loss in his face, before she stands and offers him a hand. The Hun seems to laugh at her and then go, ‘well, since you offered’ with a shrug, then takes her hand to heave himself up. She’s nearly jerked off her feet by it, but plants her feet and contributes as much as she can. They both wobble a little to rebalance and smile at each other a little in good humor. Mulan claps him on the arm sportingly. “You fight good.” He seems to understand that much and gives her a thumbs up, displaying a gold tooth.
She doesn’t win all her fights, but she does come out on top of most of them, sometimes literally as it’s the only way to bring them down.
They don’t seem embarrassed to be beaten by a woman or very shy about beating one.
Why they’d want to fight when there’s real battle to be had just down the hillside is beyond her. After a few spars go her way and a couple don’t, the Huns start to place bets, by the look of things. The winners pat her gruffly on the back once or twice and the losers seem to hold no ill will. Mulan wonders how she found herself saddled with this situation and where it leads.
With Shan Yu, she fights by the sword. They clash, then again. His eyebrows jump on his brow as she locks her arms and briefly holds him off with swords crossed between them. Her arms are shaking from the strain of it. Ducking away and parrying, Mulan tries to get behind him and fails. They spar this way for some time, neither fully on the defensive, which Mulan is proud of. That is, until Shan Yu seems to get bored or tired and slams forward with an unstoppable overhead strike. Her hair swings wildly in her face as she dodges outright, exactly where he wants her to be. Shan Yu is already there, angling his sword into her gut, just firm enough to pull a little at the fabric of her stolen shirt. Mulan darts a glance at him and sees the sharp strange look again. It’s been weeks, but she couldn’t possibly forget it. This time it’s her tilting her head at him and that seems to jostle him out of his singular focus.
“Well fought,” he praises as he sheathes his sword.
“You too,” Mulan says and then is unsure how to follow up. It’s almost dinner time, going by the dying sun. “Do you - “
“Would you - “ They both speak at the same time, then stop. Mulan scratches the back of her head sheepishly and encourages him. “You first.”
“Dine with me tonight.”
“Okay.” She pokes her foot into the frozen and hard-packed soil, trying idly to kick a rock loose. Darting another look at him, she asks what’s for dinner. “I should think you would know better than me, as the second cook in the camp.”
“No, I just like to make myself useful.”
“And you have, soldier.” Shan Yu dips his head a little, almost as if trying to catch her gaze by making himself a little lower.
“My name isn’t soldier, it’s Fa Mulan.”
“Ah, Fa Mulan.” He seems to taste the name on his tongue, letting it roll off rich and savored. Again, she thinks about what he’d said about respect being earned. “Would you like to stay?”
The rock comes loose and skitters down the hill with a loud clack. “Nowhere else to go,” Mulan reasons.
“That I can see.”
“Seems like I’m staying, then,” she counters airily.
“So it does.”
The cook clangs his iron ladle against an empty pot to signal dinner’s ready. Shan Yu holds an arm out in his direction, as if to say after you. It's almost like he’s trying to wear down her assumptions about the Huns being uncivilized and the thought irritates her. Mulan clomps over to where the men gather for food and waits her turn with Shan Yu by her side.
It’s a thin soup with leeks and wafer thin slivers of salt pork tonight. If they’re busting out the dried goods, they’re either running low on food or spirits are low and they’re rationing out the meat.
By the fireside, Shan Yu sits warm and hulking next to her and says, “Tell me about your homeland,” in that distinctive rumble of his. Mulan isn’t sure whether to do as he says because really, he’s the one endangering everything and everyone she cares about - him alone. When you get right down to it. “Well, my town is small and as you know, I’m an only child. We keep chickens and a few cows. Everyone harvests grain in my region and my family is unusually small because it takes a lot of hands to do all the work. Where I’m from, the best way to make a good future for your family as a woman is to marry well.”
“How are the marriages decided?” Shan Yu asks, tipping more soup into his mouth directly from the bowl and bypassing the need for a spoon entirely. Belatedly, Mulan looks around and realizes everything else is doing the same, so she copies him. It’s hard to navigate around the leeks. She gulps down a bit of the soup. It’s pretty good, actually. Her taste buds are adapting to the cook’s preference towards the very salty.
“There’s a matchmaker! She tests you on your wifely skills and decides who would be the best husband for you.”
“Oh, ridiculous stuff,” Mulan replies with feeling, warming to the topic. “Reciting poetry, having good posture,” she straightens out of the curled posture all the men are doing and she’s been unconsciously mirroring as they huddle around their respective bowls of soup, towards the glow of the fire. She demonstrates the correct posture. “ . . . pouring tea.”
“Surely suitability for marriage isn’t decided by who can pour tea best.”
“Then you’d be surprised, Shan Yu,” she says dryly, realizing it’s the first time she’s called him by his name.
“China is a strange land,” he reasons. He tears sharp canine teeth into the salt pork, tearing it like wet paper. Mulan chews stubbornly on her own and struggles to gnaw off a piece. There are upsides to being sharp of tooth and eye, she’s beginning to see.
“I think anywhere else would seem strange to me.”
“It will.” Shan Yu sets his bowl aside and braces his elbows on his knees, gazing into the fire. She’s not unaware of his meaning, but doesn’t know what to think of it and is grateful for the distraction of fighting with the pork. Swooping in with a mighty flap of his wings to slow his descent, Shan Yu’s hawk lands on his shoulder and gives a welcoming shriek. Shan Yu pets down his beak with a finger only once, but there’s affection there.
“And what was your suitability for marriage, according to this matchmaker?”
Mulan reddens and splutters. “Ummmm . . . “
He turns to face her. “Not good?”
“I . . . accidentally set her on fire?” Shan Yu pulls back a bit as if he’s mistranslated then realizes he understood correctly. He chuckles a little to himself, then rears his head back and laughs openly. It bares his canines in full and puts that deep smoky voice in a lighthearted context that’s very pleasing. The Hun warriors gathered around the fire look on in wonder and the hawk startles, flapping its wings irritatedly to keep balance. One of the men asks him a question, which Shan Yu waves off.
“And do you plan to set your future husband on fire?”
“Not intentionally, no,” Mulan grumbles but secretly feels pleased. Shan Yu chuckles again at this combination of sass and honesty.
She rolls under her fur still smiling from within and sleeps well that night.
Mulan inspects the rows of shields hung on a foldable wooden mount frame with Shan Yu the next day after language lessons. She’s still learning new words and when she pointed to these, he sounded out the word for her once, twice. The shape of the shield is different from those she’s used to and she wants to show Shan Yu the difference in order to ask her question. Trying to pick one up proves perilous as her grip slips and ends up knocking every last shield over which brings the mount frame crashing to the ground. It falls over her, missing her by a hair. She turns and gives Shan Yu a sheepish grin as a plea for mercy from the middle of the mess, but he only shakes his head and chuckles at her wickedly. Cri-Kee pokes his head out of her pocket at all the ruckus and utters a sleepy and questioning chirrup.
“Who is this?” Shan Yu asks as he steps closer, stepping around the fallen shields until he’s close enough to hold out a hand in question. Mulan scoops Cri-Kee out of her pocket and gently tilts her hand to drop him into his palm. Cri-Kee gives a faint, wilting squeak as if he's about to faint of fright.
“His name is Cri-Kee.” Holding him at eye level, Shan Yu considers him closely. Cri-Kee leans back as far as he can go. “He’s for good luck. He even helped my grandmother cross a busy road blind without getting into an accident.”
Shan Yu raises a finger to pet down the cricket’s back once the way he does with his hawk, then offers him back to Mulan. “He’s kept you company in these strange days and in battle,” he observes.
“He’s good company,” she agrees. Cri-Kee knows he’s being talked about and gives a long, betrayed cheep as she sticks him back in her pocket. She used to feel that way about Shan Yu, too, that wilting oh god, I’m about to die feeling and she’s really not sure where it went.
She misses Mushu and thinks Cri-Kee does, too. Mulan doesn’t think he would have adjusted to this new situation very well, though. It’s a mystery, what way he will make in the world for himself now that their mission to secure the family honor is a bust. Maybe he’ll find a new family to protect and guide. It’s a good thought and she hopes it’s true. She wonders what Shan Yu or any of the Huns would make of her claim of possessing a talking miniature dragon as she finishes dinner that night. He guides her into the tent and they just sit on cushions for once without a game between them or a specific reason to be together. An excuse.
“You like it here.” Shan Yu observes; he doesn’t say it accusingly, but it’s a bit of an arrow to the heart all the same.
“Well, I - “ She starts but doesn’t know how to finish. “I’m adapting,” she settles on.
“You intend to stay.”’
“If you’ll have me, yes.”
“You are welcome among us, soldier - ”
“Thank you,” she interrupts.
“But not all your needs are being met, Fa Mulan.”
“Huh?” She’s caught out by that, blinking in confusion. Shan Yu lifts a hand to her hair and tugs a lock free, the stimulation feeling weirdly good on her scalp.
“You want for a husband, or at least a man.”
“And, uh, who would . . . ?”
Shan Yu raises an eyebrow.
“You don’t,” she splutters, “have to do that.” Mulan is trying and failing to keep her cool. This is a very surprising turn of events. Her face feels like it’s on fire.
He considers the glossy lock of hair held delicately between his fingers. “And if I wanted to?”
Not everything she wants is here. But everything she needs, the absolute necessities . . . are. Could be. If she wanted them to be.
“I’m more than fine with that.”
“Just fine?” He’s toying with her.
“I said more than,” Mulan retorts mulishly.
“Hmm, I’ll need to do better than that,” he murmurs as he leans his face so very close to her. “You can try,” she says back, challenging as ever, Shan Yu’s lips sealing over hers right on the last word. Both their lips are viciously chapped from the blustering cold of the mountain, but that doesn’t seem to matter nearly as much as the blistering warmth of their mouths together, moving, the stimulating micro-friction of it. She might get to feel his teeth in her neck for real and she squeezes her knees together at the thought. Shan Yu notices that, too, palming the outside of her thigh and using the grip to pull closer. The startling movement doesn’t frighten her. No, instead she surprises even herself by throwing her arms around his neck to get even closer than that. He towers over her enough he has to lean and crouch to stay close, hair tangling together.
Shan Yu brushes her hair back, for all the good it does, stubborn hairs falling right back into place. He even seems fond of that, a small curve to his mouth giving away his amusement.
“Mulan,” he rumbles.
“Yes?” she breathes.
She gapes and checks her shirt for bloodstains from the wound, which, as she thought, is healing nicely and not in fact bleeding. Mulan glares at him. He touches two fingers to her bottom lip and shows them to her. Blood.
Touching her fingers to her mouth, she finds more droplets from the crack in her lip. Shan Yu rises and steps out of the tent without explanation. He comes back with balm. It’s largely scentless and has a waxy consistency. Applying it for her is the work of a moment and he takes off his gloves to do it, the dry pads of his fingers gentle on her face and eyes lidded as he works.
“There,” he says. “Now you’re perfection.” Mulan laughs at that.
“Nice try.” Shan Yu darts his chin to the side, looking at her with challenge in his face. “I’m the farthest thing from perfection in the world, Shan Yu,” she admonishes.
“Not to me, you’re not.” He combs more hair back from her face, nails rattling pleasingly against her scalp, the better to see her face, her bluster.
“Then there’s something wrong with you,” Mulan counters.
He shakes his head, silent. Well, that’s one way to end an argument. She sighs and wants to kiss him again, but her lips are smeared with the balm. Settling for patting his face, she climbs to her feet and her fingers drift down his cheek, along his jaw, to slip from his chin as she walks by. “Goodnight, Shan Yu.”
“Sleep well,” he purrs, possibly not knowing how much hearing that exact tone is going to keep her from her rest tonight.
All told, Mulan camps out with the Huns for two weeks, which is long enough to cement that she is never going home and the Huns really aren’t so bad, afterall. Funny, she’s learning more wifely skills like cooking and providing entertainment among the Huns than she ever did in formal etiquette lessons.
But the battle is fruitless and Shan Yu, ever the strategist, begins to see there is no way forward and they’re only throwing bodies in the meat grinder at this point. China has apparently proven better fortified and better prepared than he’d thought and it appears he’s unwilling to lose everything to just embarrass the emperor. Mulan never says a word as they pack up camp in the dead of night and sneak around the curve of the mountain, but she does shine with the kind of pride that can only be instilled by one’s homeland. She can’t help it, she’s proud. The Huns beat a four day retreat back beyond the Wall and Mulan follows because she likes it here and dammit there’s nowhere else to go. And why shouldn’t she? It’s her life, afterall.
Mulan rides in front of Shan Yu in the saddle. He sits two heads taller than her and has no problems seeing around her. There are spare horses from those fallen among their number. They all know that. But it’s better to be close, warm, snug, cozy. She likes it here and why shouldn’t she. Right Hand says something about not going home empty-handed under his breath as they climb the stairs up the Wall at an access point.
A final moment of resolution finds her on the crenellated Wall under the moonlight. Most of the Huns have already rappelled down. No one looks at her with expectation or question because they all know what she’s going to do. Mulan takes a deep breath in, savoring the last crisp breath of Chinese air she will ever have. She takes hold of the rough grain of the rope and braces herself to step over the edge into the wilds of an unknown land.
Mulan leaps and doesn’t look down.