The new General Li and his four new officers gathered in Shang's
tent, and Shang again showed the map of the region to the rest. With a grave
expression on his face, he reported the situation to them.
"Our scouts' reports about the Huns are not at all encouraging. Although the Huns don't have Shan-Yu's leadership, this new force is much larger--more than twice the number--as Shan-Yu's."
The others sat, stunned.
"And we still don't have an army to defend the Imperial City. The recruits are not ready for battle, let alone take on a Hun army of that size. And so our hopes rely on the Cantonese archers, and they aren't here yet."
Shang had more bad news.
"I also received word that the Huns destroyed a large village nearby," Shang said, grimly. "I'm sending a dispatch from this camp for search and rescue at the destroyed village. The four of you will be included. Prepare to move out."
The four others shook their heads sadly at the news.
"We are always at your service, sir," said Chien-Po.
The Gang of Three quietly left the tent.
Shang confided in Mulan. "The new recruits are just barely ready for service. Chi Fu has been making notes of their progress--or rather, any lack of it. If there is any failure, he will jump at the chance to petition the Emperor to replace me as general."
Shang bit his lip. "I need an excuse to get out from under Chi Fu's shadow. I have asked him to command the mission to the village, just to get him away from here."
Mulan's countenance lowered. "Oh."
"And Mulan, I am assigning you to be second in command under Chi Fu. Ling, Yao, and Chien-Po will accompany you as officers, and I am also sending some of our best recruits." He looked at her with a more formal expression. "You are now Captain Fa Mulan."
Mulan raised her eyebrows. "Captain!" she whispered to herself.
She was flattered that he had confidence in the Gang of Three, and in her. Not only would this be her first campaign without Shang--but she was going as a commander!
"But what about you?"
"I need to stay here to train the other recruits."
Mulan sighed. "I understand."
She would have gladly traded her new rank for a chance to spend more time with him.
Within the hour, the rescue squad assembled on the training ground. About ten dozen men prepared for the march, and they loaded a cart with supplies and another with cannons. All this was conducted under the supervision of Chi Fu, who sat high upon his horse. Every once in a while, with a condescending tone, he would command Mulan to perform menial tasks. Mulan knew she would have to bite her tongue--as well as gag Mushu--while Chi Fu was around. She was a national heroine, true, but she was still his subordinate.
The recruits were contemptuous of Chi Fu as a commander, and began to make fun of him, until Shang intervened.
"Whether you like it or not," Shang warned, "Chi Fu will be your commander during your assignment. Any insubordination or lack of respect of his authority will be dealt with by me personally when you return. And believe me, you don't want to find out what I have in store."
The men quieted down, and from then on, quietly obeyed Chi Fu's commands. Privately, however, they still snickered amongst themselves over their scrawny commander.
The entourage moved out of Wu Zhong. They marched about thirty miles to the northwest, looking cautiously at every turn, nervous about the possibility of a Hun ambush.
They arrived at the village without incident. The troops stood awestruck as the sight of yet another devastated village lay before them.
Fighting tears, Mulan walked along the deserted street of the wreaked village. This was something she had seen before, but knew she would never get used to. All that remained of the buildings were burned-out timbers and scattered rocks. All of its citizens were now dead--or, at best--homeless.
Chi Fu ordered Yao and Ling to search the far edge of the village, and for Chien-Po to take the recruits toward the center of the village, leaving himself alone with Mulan to search the nearby edge of town.
They all scattered to search for survivors, but they all had the sickening feeling that, like the village near the Tung-Shao Pass a few months earlier, there would be none.
"If only we had gotten here sooner--" Mulan began.
"And you hold your tongue!" Chi Fu snapped. "Remember, you are my subordinate. You speak when I give you permission."
Mulan nodded silently. She had to throttle Mushu in the meantime to prevent him from attacking her temporary commander.
Several hundred yards away, Yao and Ling continued their search through the wreckage. Yao climbed over a collapsed barn, and his taller friend wriggled behind him. Yao sighed at the field of destruction before them. Another damaged stone wall, another torched dwelling. It all looked the same. Not a sign of life anywhere.
"Go see what's behind that brush, Ling. I'm going this way," Yao said. "And don't get yourself lost!"
Ling trotted over some piles of debris, and behind the brush.
"Oh, and Ling . . . Ling?" Yao called. "Ling!"
There was no answer.
Yao growled and muttered under his breath.
Mulan, walking silently behind Chi Fu, began her search on the close edge of the village. She wished to herself that she would find something--anything--under the smoldering remains. Even finding a little doll would bring her some small comfort. But it was not meant to be.
Chi Fu suddenly gestured to Mulan. "There's something over there."
Mulan looked to the other side of the street, where a huge pagoda still stood, although badly damaged from the fire. Underneath it appeared to be the ruins of what once was the stone walls of a well. She nodded. "Maybe someone went down there to escape the fire."
Chi Fu was indignant. "I'll do the speculating around here," he huffed. Then he paused and straightened up. "Maybe someone went down there to escape the fire. I'll go and check it out. You stay here. This is not a job for a woman."
Chi Fu dismounted his horse and walked over to the other side of the street.
Mushu popped out from Mulan's neckerchief, and began bellowing. "When I get my claws on him, I'm going to yank his mustache right off his face."
Mulan restrained the little dragon, and lowered him onto Khan's back. "It's all right," she said, as she dismounted her horse. "It won't be too much longer before we're back at Wu Zhong."
Mushu fumed silently, while Cri-Kee stood beside him, glaring at Chi Fu
Holding a lantern high above his head, the Emperor's Counsel inspected the well. "Hello! Come on out," he shouted, in a high-pitched voice. Hearing no answer, he moved to the other side of the well. Suddenly, he heard a snap below him, and something under his foot gave way. The earth on the far side of the well caved in, and Chi Fu fell screaming into a deep chasm. Mulan gasped as she watched her commander disappear. Before Mushu even realized what had happened, Mulan had already grabbed a rope from her saddlebags and pulled Khan to the other side of the street.
"Chi Fu!" she shouted, as she ran to the near side of the well.
She heard a terrified voice far below. "Help!"
"Hold on. I'll throw you a rope."
"It won't do any good. My arms are broken. Or maybe my leg. I dunno . . . something's broken. I won't be able to make it."
"Hang in there. I'll be just a minute."
She secured one end of the rope to her waist and the other to Khan. Then she lowered herself into the well. When she reached the bottom, she found Chi Fu covered with dirt, but otherwise all right. Nevertheless, the man looked as though he had a close encounter with death.
"Climb up," she said, offering him the rope.
Chi Fu was completely white. "I--I can't."
Mulan sighed. She picked up Chi Fu up, then signaled Khan to tow the rope. While Mulan cradled Chi Fu in her arms like a baby, Khan pulled the rope and raised them both to safety. Mulan set Chi Fu onto his feet, and he began to wander aimlessly, in shock.
"Thanks, Khan," she said, patting his snout.
Mushu hid in Mulan's saddlebags, so to avoid being seen by Chi Fu. Just as he did so, he heard some frightening crackling sounds coming from behind Mulan. Then an explosion. Charred timbers fell all around them. Chi Fu screamed.
The pagoda was collapsing.
Khan and Chi Fu had barely enough time to jump back before an avalanche of wood and stone rained down with a huge roar.
Khan reared in fright. The huge building had barely missed them. Khan, Mushu, Cri-Kee, and Chi Fu were all safe. But the entire building had crashed upon the spot where Mulan was standing.
Mushu gasped. "Mulan!"
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By this time Ling had gotten himself quite lost among the burned-out buildings. He was not having the best of times--he got his foot stuck in a bucket, stepped onto a rake that smashed his face, and he fell in a horse trough.
Ling figured he would look less silly, if only he could get rid of that confounded bucket off his foot, and he finally managed to pull it off. Brushing himself off, he sighed and decided it was time to quit searching and return to the rest of the gang. About to leave, something caught his eye.
Over his shoulder, beyond a broken-down fence, lay a pile of debris, mostly large rocks and wooden beams, inside what once was a house. It looked no different from most of the other hills of wreckage that he came across, but something about it compelled him to inspect it. Ling walked over to the pile.
Ling's eyes grew wide. Some of the rocks in the pile were moving.
He remembered how, at the Imperial City, the Huns had popped out of the ceremonial paper dragon and swarmed the Emperor. Ling nervously estimated how many Huns might fit underneath that pile. Swallowing hard, he drew his sword. He began carefully removing rocks from the pile, until he discovered the debris was covering up a large iron door. Whoever was there lay underneath the door. While he felt his heart pounding, he slowly lifted the door and prepared to strike.
What Ling found was like a tender flower blooming among the ashes.
Lying alone under the door, in the midst of the debris, was a young maiden of about Mulan's age. She had been buried alive for hours. Dirty, bruised, terrified, her teal dress shredded along the hem, she was curled up on the ground. Her long black hair trailed over her shoulder. Soot covered the pale and velvety soft skin of her face. She cringed at the sight of Ling's sword. Ling noticed her expression, and he immediately sheathed his blade.
Ling could barely speak. "Are you all right?" he said in his squeaky voice.
"Water. Here, have some water," Ling said, handing her his water bladder.
She knelt before him and drank, shaking slightly. She wet her handkerchief and wiped her face.
"How did you--" Ling began to ask.
"They didn't find me. But my mama and papa . . . my sisters--?"
Ling gulped. He didn't know how to break the news to her.
She wept bitterly.
Instinctively, Ling fell to his knees and held her hands. "It'll be all right."
Sobbing, she pressed her face to his hands in gratitude. Ling looked at her eyes, wondering how something so terrible could possibly happen to someone so sweet. He figured she must be disappointed being rescued by the village idiot.
"Look, you can come back with me. There's plenty of supplies and food and . . . well, at least you could rest on the cart," Ling told her.
She nodded, and, with Ling's help, slowly got to her feet. She was a little bit disoriented, but saw there was nothing left in the village. All of her family and friends were gone.
The best Ling could do was to strike up a conversation to distract her.
"What's your name?" Ling asked softly.
"Liu," the maiden replied, as they began walking toward the front of the village.
"Liu. That's a pretty name," Ling said. "Hi . . . I'm Ling."
"Ling, eh?" she said, as she straightened her dress. She looked over to him. "Do you do this for a living? Rescue maidens in distress, I mean."
"Oh--no, you're the only one. Uh, the only one I've rescued, that is," Ling said, just before stumbling over a rock.
"Are you always this suave?"
Ling returned to the village entrance with Liu. The other soldiers stood amazed at the sight of Liu, for they would never have guessed that anyone could have survived this destruction. Ling escorted Liu to the supply cart, and helped her onto it. She flopped back into the straw, exhausted and heartbroken, and closed her eyes. Ling sat next to her, trying to find something consoling to say.
Yao had just returned, discouraged because he found no survivors. When he saw Ling in the cart, his face turned red. "You knucklehead! What do you think you're doing, getting yourself lost like that? I ought to punch you out."
Then he noticed the young lady in the cart, and his voice softened. "Oh . . . hello, miss."
Liu looked at Yao, then Ling. Without a word, she sighed and shut her eyes again.
"She's had a rough day," Ling reported to Yao. "Just be gentle to her."
Yao snorted up some mucus and spit it on the ground. "Yeah, you know I can be gentle."
Chien-Po and the recruits were not far behind. They, too, had returned empty-handed. He noticed that everyone was accounted for--except for Mulan and Chi Fu. He pointed this out to the others, and they all grew concerned.
Then Yao saw the cannon cart in the distance, and a black horse across the street from it. "They're over there!" he called to the others, and they all hustled down the road. They found their commanding officer Chi Fu in a state of shock. There was no sign of Mulan.
They all gasped when they looked up and saw Mulan stand before them, a bit sooty, but otherwise in good shape.
"Mulan!" Yao cried. "We were fearing the worst."
Mulan nodded. "I'm all right. When I saw the building was about to fall on top of me, I just jumped back down the well. Then I just used the rope around my waist to pull myself out."
Chien-Po smiled and turned to Chi Fu. "Everyone accounted for, sir."
Chi Fu, still looking traumatized, mounted his horse. With a squeaky voice, he ordered the unit to move out. The troops began their march back to Wu Zhong. Chien-Po guided the horse pulling the open-air supply cart, and Yao grabbed Khan's reins to lead the cannon cart.
As the open-air cart began to move, Mulan hopped on to catch her breath. She was startled by the sight of Liu, as she had almost sat right on her.
"Oh!" Mulan said. "I didn't see you there."
Liu sat up, and looked at Ling. "Do all the soldiers get to hitch a ride?" she asked. "If so, I'd better get off now, or I'll be crushed."
"No--I'm only going to be here for a moment," Mulan said. "You're from the village?"
"Yes. It looks like I'm the only survivor."
Mulan looked at her with deep sympathy. "I'm sorry."
Liu was bitter. There was no way any of the soldiers could understand--not even Ling.
"Oh, you wouldn't understand. You're a man."
"I'm not a man."
Liu blinked and stared at Mulan. "You're a girl?"
"Er, yeah," Ling said. "This is the famous Fa Mulan."
"Oh," Liu said plainly. "Famous? I'm sorry I haven't heard about you."
Mulan looked hurt.
Liu looked at her, puzzled. "Why are they making you serve in the army?"
Mulan shook her head. "I volunteered. It's a long story."
Liu really looked baffled now. "Don't you like being a girl?"
"Why do you think I don't like being a girl?"
"Well, you're doing this instead of getting married. All girls get married."
"I can't say I won't ever get married," Mulan said. "But the dressing up part--to please the matchmaker--that just isn't me. It's fine for other girls, but I was never cut out for it."
Liu sat up straighter, and preened her hair. "You're a very strange woman, Fa Mulan. Your family obviously didn't teach you proper etiquette. Normal women in China learn to be obedient and subservient--especially to men."
Liu laid back down in the straw. "Well, I'm going to do the honorable thing and get married. And I will learn to love whomever the Matchmaker selects for me."
"Wouldn't you . . . rather be with a guy you really think is special? I mean, isn't it important to fall in love first?"
Liu turned, looking shocked. "Isn't it important to bring honor to your family?" She glared at Mulan. "Why? Is there a guy you think is special?"
Mulan just sat quietly and smiled at the thought.
"I thought so. You care nothing for your family's honor!"
Mulan had enough. Without another word, she jumped off the cart and walked ahead. Ling popped his head up from the hay and looked at Liu.
"You don't understand, Liu," Ling said. "Mulan loves her family. She risked her life to save her father."
Ling looked over to Mulan. "She once risked her life to save me, too."
Liu paused. She began thinking that maybe she had jumped to a hasty conclusion about Mulan.
The Imperial unit marched in silence for most of the afternoon.
After clearing a particularly high mountain, they continued up a steep hill
and around a tight turn. Beyond the turn, the road overlooked a short valley,
bordered by a forest. Mulan looked up and into the valley, and she stopped cold.
At the bottom of the valley, not more than three hundred paces from her, was a Hun unit, about a hundred strong. Mulan easily recognized the Huns' drab gray furry coats. They were relaxing and putting their horses to pasture, and were not at all expecting a hostile army to appear over the hill.
The Chinese and the Mongolian units spotted each other at about the same time, and each side was equally surprised. The Emperor's troops were so near the Huns, there was time only to fire off a couple of cannons, and then combat hand-to-hand.
Chi Fu froze.
Mulan desperately tried to snap him out of his trance. "Sir? Chi Fu!"
"Oh great. Now what do we do?" Mushu cried.
Mulan found herself fighting panic. They were face to face with the enemy, and now they were without a leader.
Mulan stalled for a moment. She took a deep breath to calm herself, then recalled the military strategy she had read recently. She saw that the way the Imperial troops were scattered would never fare well against the enemy. She unsheathed her father's sword, and, waving circles in the air with it, called the unit to attention.
"Form a line!" she called to them, and directed Yao and Chien-Po to fire cannons.
Yao and Chien-Po each grabbed a cannon from the cart, struck their flint, and their cannons roared. Seconds later, their two shells slammed into the rear of the Hun brigade, scattering dozens of the enemy. Yao and Chien-Po then joined their comrades as they formed their battle line.
Liu looked over to Ling for a moment. With a determined scowl, Ling grabbed his sword and helmet, and jumped off the cart. Liu watched him as he rushed to join his comrades.
The Chinese troops looked surprised when they noticed that Mulan was commanding them. They obeyed their new commanding officer, and formed a line along the road, facing the Huns. Mulan, taking the initiative, shouted to the troops to make a sudden shift to the left, then to strike the Huns from the side.
With a loud cry the Imperial unit ran forward to strike the Huns' flank.
Mulan jumped forward to a spot where two Imperial soldiers battled three Huns. Mulan picked out the extra Hun, gripped her sword, and, half-closing her eyes, she slashed.
Mulan opened her eyes to see the Hun with a stunned look on his face. He fell over. Though not mortally wounded, he was incapacitated. Mulan then looked down at her sword covered with blood, and gasped. She couldn't believe she just did that.
"Uh . . . sorry. Are you all right?" she asked the wounded Hun.
The Hun growled.
"Are you going to sit and have tea with him, or are you going to get back to fighting?" Mushu fumed from on top her shoulder. Mulan whistled nonchalantly, and ran over to help the rest of the troops.
Yao and Chien-Po had absolutely no trouble handling the enemy. Like an assembly line, Yao booted one Hun after another to Chien-Po, who would slam their heads with a shield, instantly knocking them out. Ling was encircled by six Huns, who were about to subdue him. He head-butted them one at a time, knocking each one unconscious.
With the help of the rest of the men, Mulan defeated fifteen other Huns, ensuring an Imperial victory. The remaining Huns retreated over the crest and back into the forest. Mulan called for her troops to withdraw also, in case enemy archers waited in the woods. The Huns had sustained a large number of wounded and captured, while Imperial casualties were practically nil.
Some of the inexperienced soldiers began celebrating. "We won! We won the war! We beat the whole Hun army!"
Mulan knew better. Yes, the Chinese troops won, but this was only a skirmish. She knew the huge main Hun army was out there somewhere, and she did not relish the thought of what it might look like.
After a few more hours of marching, the troops returned to Wu Zhong from their assignment. Mulan saw that Shang and the recruits had finished their training for the day, as the camp was mostly deserted, save for a handful of men standing about, relaxing. Mulan searched for Shang, but he was nowhere in sight.
Mulan looked towards the lake more closely. About two hundred yards away, Shang was pulling himself out of the water, totally naked. Mulan stifled a laugh. Maybe he had forgotten there was a woman among the soldiers?
Shang wrapped himself with a loincloth and headed back to camp. He looked a bit surprised to see the soldiers return, and a bit more surprised by Mulan's presence. Mulan ran up to him.
"Shang! " she said, smiling. She bit her lip as she looked up and down his statuesque frame. "It's good to be back."
Shang was unfazed. "What's the report?"
Mulan sighed. Doesn't he think of anything other than the army?
"We skirmished the Huns while on the road," she said.
Shang raised his eyebrows. "Casualties?"
"No one on our side is missing or seriously hurt," she said, grinning, "and we have taken about a dozen prisoners--"
Chi Fu barged in. "Yes, and you have me to thank. If it weren't for my quick thinking, your entire unit would have been lost."
Mulan stood agape at Chi Fu's nerve. She was about to protest, when Shang waved her off to listen to her superior. Mulan stood there silently, looking hurt and angry.
"And in spite of the danger," Chi Fu continued, "I managed to rescue one of the villagers."
Shang looked over and saw Liu in the cart. "We'll be sure to set up accommodations for her. Mulan, see to it that the girl is comfortable and has some companionship."
Mulan looked at Shang coldly. She was already in a foul mood, and the thought of having to serve as Liu's companion annoyed her.
Chi Fu smirked. "I can't wait to get my report out to the Emperor! He will be so thrilled with my heroics." He strutted away.
Mulan, almost in tears, was speechless.
"Don't worry, Mulan," Shang said. "I know very well that everything he said was a lie. I just listen to him because he amuses me. There is only one person I know who could have led the troops to that kind of victory."
Mulan managed to smile.
"I have to thank you for what you've done," he said. "Your bravery and leadership during this assignment has earned you a bonus in pay," Shang said, about to turn to leave.
Mulan just rolled her eyes.
Shang looked back at her, confused. "What is it?"
Mulan was about to say something, but stopped herself.
"Would you prefer a medal?" he asked. "More leave time?"
Mulan just threw up her hands. "I don't want more money or medals. Couldn't I just . . ." She stopped, then spoke again, very softly. "Couldn't I just . . . spend an hour with you?"
Shang blinked. "Er . . . yeah, we could do that--I suppose." He looked at her again, pondering.
They separated to their respective tents and changed into informal attire. Fifteen minutes later, Shang and Mulan were walking together along the shore of the lake. From the light of the late afternoon sun, the trees surrounding the lake cast long shadows in the water. Shang picked up stones and skimmed them on the smooth surface.
"Good news," he said. "Our scouts report that the main Hun army has moved to the southwest, and is idle."
Mulan felt as though she had to bite her tongue. She agreed there was a national crisis. But if, in the next hour, she heard one more word from Shang about the Huns, or about the army, or about discipline and strength, she would scream.
"Oh, and Mulan--there is one more thing. The Emperor has asked to see you."
Mulan perked up. "The Emperor? Wha--"
"I received the message this afternoon. The Emperor has requested that you go to the Imperial City, and meet with him. He wants a private audience with you."
"But I'm in the field now."
"Mulan, trust me. This is an invitation not to be taken lightly. Only kings and ambassadors ever get this sort of privilege. Not even my father nor I have had such an honor."
"I don't feel right about this. What if the Huns attack while I'm gone?"
"The Huns are idle right now, and they are still a long way from the Imperial City. Plus, the Cantonese troops are due to arrive any day now, so the Imperial City will be well defended," he said. "Mulan, this is an opportunity. Take it."
"Come with me, Shang."
"No. I can't leave my men."
Shang smiled at her understanding.
"Look," Shang said, "I didn't mean to make you feel ignored earlier. You've done a lot for us, Mulan. Uh--"
Mulan looked up, expectantly.
He paused. "And I'm sorry for being so hard on you when you first enlisted," Shang said.
"Nah, that's all right. I learned a lot from you."
Shang laughed. "I'm glad you don't have any bad memories of me."
"No bad memories," Mulan said.
Then she stopped smiling. There was one bad memory. Very bad.
"What is it?" Shang asked.
"You remember that night after the battle at the Tung-Shao Pass? You know, when I was found out--?"
Shang was silent. He knew what she was going to say next.
"Chi Fu dragged me from the medic's tent and threw me into the snow . . ."
Shang remembered how she knelt bravely there in the cold, completely at his mercy.
"Then you drew my sword; raised it over my head . . ."
"I wasn't going to. I swear it," Shang said softly.
"You never thought of--?"
"Never. You were too good of a friend to me, even as Ping. But I was angry with you, Mulan. Angry and betrayed. I felt as though you had made a fool of me in front of Chi Fu and all of my men. And so, I was showing you that I could have done it, in order to teach you a lesson."
Shang hugged her. "I'm sorry I frightened you."
He held her tightly in his strong arms for a while, and Mulan fought back tears.
Stepping back, Mulan looked at his face. She could tell by his eyes that he was speaking the truth. Her face brightened.
"I owe you my life again," Shang said. "You saved me from Shan-Yu at the Imperial City, too. Who knows? Maybe I'll save your life someday, for a change," he quipped.
They smiled to each other and held hands.
Mulan spent the following afternoon riding from Wu Zhong to the
Imperial City, and arrived as dusk was falling over the Emperor's Palace.
She rode up to the base of the Palace steps. She looked up to the Great Palace, reminiscing over the last time she had seen it. The entire east wing was still badly damaged by the fire that occurred when she vanquished Shan-Yu.
A middle-aged woman with a kind face walked down the steps and approached her. "Are you Fa Mulan?"
"Why, yes. How did you kn--"
"The Emperor has been expecting you. He has assigned me to watch for your arrival, and for me to prepare your hospitality for the night. Follow me."
The woman summoned a couple of stable boys to lead Khan away to care for him for the evening, and Mulan followed the woman up the Palace steps.
"I remember seeing you on the Palace roof! How you got rid of Shan-Yu!"
Mulan was flattered.
"Although," the woman said, "I have to admit, you do look quite different in armor."
Mulan was led to a place where she could bathe and dress.
"I'll leave you to the care of my servant girls now. They will see to it that you are comfortable for the night," the woman said, before leaving Mulan at the baths.
Mulan entered the bathing area, which was populated by several women from the Palace. When she sauntered in, they all stared at her in her male attire.
"A man!" one woman shrieked.
Clutching towels to their bodies, they all ran out screaming. Mulan chuckled. She had the bath all to herself.
The baths were furnished with a variety of soaps, lotions, and shampoos. She settled into a warm pool of water for the first time in weeks. She had bathed frequently since leaving home, but it was always in the cold water of lakes or streams. This was a refreshing change.
When Mulan finished and stepped out, a team of servant girls waited for her. They fixed her hair and applied some sort of special lotion to her skin. Mulan was not sure what they were rubbing on her, but whatever it was, it was the most beautiful stuff she had ever smelled. The girls slipped a luxurious silk gown on her.
Servants showed Mulan to her room--it was a grand guest bedroom with a magnificent soft bed--and they made sure she was comfortable and accommodated in every way. Three servants came by her room with trays of all types of food, and saw to it Mulan had as much as she wanted to eat. They also furnished various scrolls for her to enjoy reading in bed.
After reading for a half hour or so, Mulan extinguished the light, and, cuddling against the huge down pillow, said a silent prayer to her Ancestors, wishing that her friends and family were all safe.
In the morning, the hour came for Mulan's visit with the Emperor. After a sumptuous breakfast, she enjoyed another luxurious bath, with servant girls again waiting to dress her, style her hair, and apply makeup. Mulan giggled. She had not been doted on like this since her preparation for the Matchmaker.
Mulan tried to strike up a conversation with the girls. The servant girls were mostly reticent, but Mulan managed to learn from them that some of the soaps and makeup were special formulas, many from as far away as India and Egypt.
She was fitted in a deep purple silk and satin gown, easily the most beautiful clothing she had ever worn. Her hair, though short, was tied neatly in a pretty tail behind her neck with a purple silk ribbon, and she was given matching satin shoes for her feet. The girls applied an exotic foundation to her face, which made her face seem to glow. Upon that they brushed on mauve blush to her cheeks, cherry-red paint to her lips, and lavender shadow on her eyelids.
Mulan grinned at her reflection in the mirror, for she could barely recognize herself. Dressing up was not her usual style, but she enjoyed this pampering once in a while.
The ladies led Mulan to a great hallway where she was to walk down to the Emperor's chamber.
She had met the Emperor once before, but that was amid the chaos of Shan-Yu's attempt to kidnap the ruler. This was entirely different: a formal meeting alone with the Emperor, inside his great chamber. Mulan remembered being told she was the first woman in China's history granted such an honor.
Mulan imagined that when she entered the room she would have to walk up a golden stairway of a thousand steps, and have to kneel before a twenty-foot-high gold-emblazoned throne. She began to feel very small.
She walked down the long hallway that ended with a pair of thirty-foot high bronze doors, which two large guards opened and allowed her to enter the chamber. Inside the chamber, Mulan saw that instead of a throne of divine splendor, the Emperor was kneeling before a humble tea table. Mulan bowed. The Emperor gestured for Mulan to join him. She was invited to have tea with him!
Mulan felt a little nervous. Dignity and refinement, Mulan reminded herself. She couldn't get the humiliating incident with the Matchmaker out of her mind.
Servants were on hand to serve the tea, but Mulan silently offered to pour instead. If only the Matchmaker could see her now, pouring tea for the Emperor of China!
As Mulan poured, something caught her eye. She stared. There was a very strange animal walking across the marble floor. The animal was straw-colored and about the size of an average cat. But it was fluffy, short-legged, had large black eyes, and it occasionally made peculiar snorting sounds. Its paws were like a dog's but it couldn't be a dog, could it? The animal lacked a dog's long muzzle. Instead, the front of its face looked pushed-in.
Mulan, distracted, overfilled the Emperor's teacup a bit. She winced and gritted her teeth.
The Emperor's smiling eyes reassured her. "That is Huan-Gua, my dog," the Emperor said, wiping under his cup. "He is one of a special breed of dog meant just for the Palace. They've been here for hundreds of years. Go ahead, you may pet him."
Mulan smiled politely, and remained silent. She petted the friendly dog, who then curled up next to her beside the tea table.
"Do you have a dog, Mulan?" the Emperor asked.
Mulan hesitated. She was about to tell him about Little Brother, but then she glumly figured the Emperor of China would never be interested, what with this fantastic dog he owned. Nor, she figured, would he be interested in her humdrum home life.
"Well, I have a dog, your Excellency," she said. "He helps me with my chores at home."
"Helps you with your chores?" the Emperor asked, intrigued. "How does he do that?"
The Emperor had broken the ice. Mulan told him about her smart dog; then she talked about Khan, her family, and the Gang of Three's antics. With each of her stories, the Emperor grew more interested and amused.
"I am most curious . . . why did you risk your life by impersonating a soldier?" he asked.
"It was to save my father's life. He was conscripted to serve the army, but he is getting older. And because of his old wounds, he could barely walk. He would have been killed."
The Emperor nodded knowingly. "Fa Zhou was one of my finest and bravest warriors, but he is stubborn and fiercely loyal. I would never wish for him die in vain. If I had known his condition, and that he had no sons to take his place, I would have recalled his conscription."
"Well, I took his place, Your Majesty," Mulan said, smiling.
"Yes. I see a lot of your father in you, including the stubborn streak, but most of all the bravery," said the Emperor, with a wink. "How you defeated Shan-Yu was extraordinary."
Mulan grinned appreciatively, and refilled the teacups.
"You have seen much of General Li Shang?" the Emperor asked.
Mulan's eyes lit up. "Oh, yes. I'm serving as a captain for him at Wu Zhong. I've seen him almost every day--until I left camp last evening."
The Emperor could tell by Mulan's expression that she and Shang were hitting it off very nicely. He grinned.
Mulan's thoughts drifted to Shang.
Shang rode up the frozen slope, and inspected the terrain around the Tung-Shao Pass. He reminisced about the last time he was there, when a mighty Hun army was buried alive by an avalanche created by a tenderfoot named Ping. That seemed eons ago.
Shang was back to the Pass again, leading the Cantonese archers, who were digging in for a stand against the new Hun threat.
The scene looked much as it did the previous spring. A thick blanket of snow covered the valley, with no sign of the hundreds of men and horses that lay far below the surface.
Shang looked at the men he was commanding now. The two thousand Cantonese archers were the finest troops he had ever seen. He was confident that they could cut the Huns down with a hail of arrows as the enemy rode over the crest. Therefore, he figured the dangerous avalanche that Mulan triggered against Shan-Yu would not be necessary this time. He ordered his men to knock the snow off the nearby mountains, a little at a time, with their cannons.
With that accomplished, the troops dug a massive series of trenches, earthworks, and horse traps as they built a great defensive fortification across the entire pass. And they positioned no fewer than three hundred cannons along the bulwarks.
They were now quite ready for the Huns.
A scout rushed into the Emperor's chamber and bowed to the Emperor. The Emperor and Mulan looked at him, alarmed.
"Forgive me, Your Excellency," the breathless scout said. "I have an urgent letter from Chi Fu at Wu Zhong camp. It was written in such haste, it is almost illegible."
The Emperor motioned for the scout to read the scroll.
"Need assistance urgently," the scout read. "Gigantic Hun army on the move, wreaking havoc everywhere. I am helpless to stand against enemy without reinforcements."
"Where is the Hun army now?" the Emperor asked.
"The Huns are fifteen miles north of Wu Zhong, heading east."
"Toward my village," she said, under her breath.
The Emperor watched sympathetically as Mulan began shaking.
"I don't understand," she said. "Where is Shang? Where are the Cantonese troops?"
"I'm sorry, that's all it says."
The Emperor looked at Mulan. "You want to go to your family."
"Yes," her voice quivering. "Please--"
"You must go to them," he said calmly.
Mulan thanked the Emperor with a hug and then ran down the great hall. The Emperor, still kneeling, did not give Mulan's breach of protocol a second thought. With a worried look on his face, he sighed as he watched Mulan exit.
Within minutes, Mulan wiped off her makeup, retied her hair, and threw on her armor. Clutching her sword, she ran to the stable where the caretakers handed her Khan's reins. Mulan kindly thanked them, then hurriedly took off toward her village, forty miles south of the Imperial City.
If she made good time, she should reach her village in about three hours.
There was little time left before the enormous Hun army would
descend upon Mulan's village--and Mulan's home.
Mulan entered the village, and pulled up on Khan's reins. Khan reared in alarm.
The streets in Mulan's village were in utter chaos. Between the buildings, hundreds of men, women, children, carts, wagons, horses, cows, pigs, and all kinds of fowl littered the throughways, as multitudes frantically prepared to evacuate the town. Scores pushed their way on the road toward the Imperial City, to seek refuge there. Mulan could manage only to inch her way through the madness, in a panicked search for any sign of her mother, father, or Grandma Fa.
Amid the sea of people, a cart tipped over across the road and spilled its cargo. A shed collapsed. Mulan could hear a little child cry somewhere the crowd. Scores of cattle plodded through the mud, blocking Khan's way.
Beyond the cattle, Mulan could see the familiar figure of the Matchmaker, who was yelling and running in circles. The Matchmaker did not notice she was treading through cow dung.
Normally, Mulan would have laughed at this sight, but she was too worried to be amused.
"Mama! Baba! Grandma!" she shouted amid the drone of the crowd.
"Mama! Baba! Grandma!"
Mulan stopped a man frantically trying to tie down his belongings onto a cart. "Excuse me, have you seen Fa Zhou?" Mulan asked quickly. The man shook his head, shrugged, then hurriedly continued his packing.
Mulan spoke to a middle-aged man and his wife, who each carried full backpacks, and had a cow in tow. "Have you seen Fa Zhou?" Mulan asked. Both shook their heads, and looked at each other wondering what a young soldier would want with Fa Zhou at a time like this.
After asking several people without result, Mulan decided to go to her house to find her family on her own.
Upon arriving at the walls of her family estate, Mulan could see that the front gate hung wide open, its doors flapping in the breeze. Once inside the gate, Mulan dismounted Khan.
"Mama? Baba? Grandma? Little Brother?"
Mulan thoroughly searched each room inside the house. There was no sign of anyone--father, mother, grandma, Little Brother, even the chickens--were gone. There was an eerie silence.
Although there was no sign of life, Mulan noticed that her family had left nearly everything behind. They apparently grabbed what they could and fled with Little Brother and the chickens, simply abandoning the house.
At least, that is what she hoped had happened.
Mulan noticed that there were several valuable items remaining that were best not left to fall into the hands of the Huns.
Mulan hastily dug a large hole beyond the pond. Then she ran back and grabbed Shan-Yu's sword, the Emperor's Crest, and all other family valuables. She laid everything in the hole, covered them with a linen sheet, and buried them. Then Mulan ran back into the house, grabbed as many nonessential bamboo and paper items as she could get a hold of, tossed them to the side of the house, and burned them.
She was glad she could get rid of some of the tinder, but she knew her house would be torched anyway. Tears welled up in her eyes.
Standing near the gate, Mulan dolefully looked at her house one last time. Within the hour, the home she grew up in--including the house and the stable--would be ashes. Khan nudged her sympathetically. She buried her face into Khan's side and cried softly.
The road in front of her house was now dead silent, and a faint brown dust cloud could be seen growing in the distance on the western horizon. Mulan knew there was not much time left. She had to find her family. She jumped onto Khan and galloped north towards the Imperial City.
Chapter 10 illustration...to view, copy & paste the following address in a new browser window (but remove any capital Xs): php?fileid28004
It seemed to take forever for Mulan to pass the thousands of refugees on the road. Hundreds of carts clogged the highway, and she found herself having to take detours into the woods several times to pass many of them. All the while, she continued her worried search for her family among the refugees.
The refugees were beginning to settle into camps for the night. Mulan was about to give up hope, as the sun was soon to set, when she saw a simple ox-drawn cart loaded with about a dozen crates of chickens. Upon the crates sat a small brown-and-white terrier. Mulan beamed, and pointed Khan toward Little Brother's direction.
Little Brother stood up and barked wildly, and Fa Zhou and Fa Li stirred and looked up.
Mulan leapt off of Khan, and ran over to hug her parents and her grandmother.
"I--I can't believe I found you. And you're all right!" the daughter said, wiping her tears.
"Mu-- Mulan, what are you doing here?" Fa Zhou asked.
"After hearing that the Huns were coming, you think I wouldn't be here for you?" Mulan smiled. "And you've got your own cart and everything!" she laughed.
"We bought it from a kind old gentleman in the village," Fa Li said. "It's not much, but it was enough to get us out of town. We were one of the first on the road."
"Yes," Fa Zhou added, "thanks to Grandma, we got an advance warning about the Huns' arrival."
"I woke up late last night from a strange dream," Grandma Fa told Mulan. "I saw your grandfather and great-grandparents in the dream, and also some animals, and a lot of people I didn't recognize. They kept saying over and over, Great danger coming, great danger coming.' And, in my dream I asked, What danger?', but they wouldn't answer. They just showed me a huge swirling black cloud that kept coming closer . . . and closer. I woke up terrified. The dream seemed so real, I just couldn't ignore it."
Mulan's mother smiled. "Grandma woke us up. At first, we dismissed it as an ordinary nightmare, but she kept insisting that we flee the house immediately. It wasn't until we were already on our way that we found out her dream was prophetic."
Mulan grinned. "I'm just glad you're safe. I'll stay with you for a little while, Mama," she said. "Then I'm heading back to Wu Zhong to round up an escort for you. It's not good for you to be out in the open on the road like this. Also, do you need anything? Do you need food?"
"That's funny you should ask, Mulan," Grandma Fa said. "A very nice young lady rode over to us earlier today, and gave us some bags of rice and noodles. She said that you had sent her from the training camp."
Mulan was bewildered. "I didn't send anyone from Wu Zhong. I haven't been at Wu Zhong for two days. What was her name?"
They all looked at each other. "I forget. Something like Lo. Was that it? Or Lei?"
Mulan frowned. "Was it, by chance, Liu?"
Her parents and grandmother nodded. "Liu! That's the name."
Mulan was astonished. Liu? The girl that hated her? Why on earth would Liu seek out her family and do something so kind?
"A soldier named Ling came along with her." Grandma said. "Do you know them? They seem to be very nice people."
Mulan rode into Wu Zhong. Breathless, she hunted around for a sign of Shang or the Gang of Three. It was already several hours after dark, so her search had to be conducted by moonlight. The first familiar person she came across was Liu.
"So, how was the Palace?"
Mulan kept looking around. "Is Ling here? Or Yao or Chien-Po?"
"They're around, somewhere. What would you want with them?"
Mulan turned to Liu. "You delivered supplies to my family. Thank you."
"I thought they might need food. It's the least I could do. Ling was eager to help, so I let him tag along."
"Shang didn't send you?"
"No. Shang wrote a pass for me, but I went on my own accord."
Mulan was dumbfounded. "Why? I always thought you hated me."
Liu smiled. "On the contrary--if it weren't for you, I might have been killed when we confronted the Huns on the trail. I must thank you for that. It is clear that you love your family, and that your family loves you, too. You are an honorable woman, Mulan. I also have been thinking . . . I wish I were like you. You are the first woman I met who decides her own future."
Mulan grinned appreciatively. "So, things are going well with Ling, I see."
"Ling's an idiot."
Mulan laughed. "Be thankful you're not on the receiving end of his practical jokes. My first few weeks in the army were miserable, thanks mostly to Ling."
"Ah, yes. Bugs down your back, and all."
"He told you?"
"And kicking over your cannon support," Liu grinned.
"Oh, he's going to get it!" Mulan said. "Someday I have to tell you how brave Ling was when he thought he saw a snake," Mulan said, as she headed into camp.
Mulan walked past the camp, over towards the lake. Mulan could detect a faint, familiar chirping sound several hundred yards away, over by the lake. Cri-Kee!
Mulan hurried over to the lake to find her lucky cricket sitting on a tree limb, watching Mushu in the water. This time it was Mushu taking a swim in the lake.
"Mushu, I'm glad I found you," Mulan said, advancing toward the shore.
"Oh, no you don't. You ain't coming in here! You have a way of attracting all sorts of people into the water, and I don't want to have to bite nobody."
"Mushu--get out of there!" Mulan said to her Guardian. "It's winter, and you're going to make yourself sick."
Mushu laughed. "Don't worry--I'm cold-blooded. Besides, I'm indestructible, remember? I can't die--every time you need a Guardian, I'll keep coming back."
Mulan sighed. "I need to find help."
"And I suppose I'm not good enough for you?" Mushu grumbled.
Mushu then remembered the First Ancestor's order for him to do a selfless deed for Mulan. He paused. "All right," he said as he stepped out of the water and began drying himself with a towel, "follow me."
Mulan and Cri-Kee followed the dragon back to camp. When he reached the edge of camp, he pointed Shang out to Mulan. Mulan's eyes grew large at the sight of Shang.
"If you need anything else," Mushu told Mulan, "I'll be at your tent with the lucky bug."
Mulan ran over to Shang. "Shang, what are you doing here? I thought you said you couldn't leave your men."
Shang fought for words. "Well, er . . . the truth is, I was worried about you. I'm glad you're all right."
"Is your family all right?" he asked.
Mulan nodded. "The entire village is on the road, heading to the Imperial City for refuge. They are just a couple of miles from here. The Huns aren't following, but I still fear for them. They are vulnerable to highway bandits."
"I have already arranged for Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po and a small contingent to leave tonight to escort them."
"Thanks, Shang. I'll be ready to leave right away."
"No--you need rest. Khan, too. You stay here tonight."
"Your family will be well protected, I promise. You may join them tomorrow."
Mulan sighed. Shang was right--it had been a very long day, and she was exhausted.
"I'll leave first thing in the morning. With Liu."
Shang nodded. "You and Liu, tomorrow morning." He looked over to the camp. "You know I can't come with you. I must leave tonight to return to the Tung-Shao Pass. Chi Fu will leave tomorrow morning with the recruits to join me at the Pass."
Mulan suddenly looked guilty. "Shang--you were right. The Huns were looking for something--me!" Mulan exclaimed. "They want to avenge Shan-Yu and the first army. That's why they were cutting across the land--they were searching for my village. And they finally found it today."
"Then the Huns will definitely attack the Imperial City tomorrow," Shang said. "They won't find you at your village, so they'll expect to find you among the defenders of the city. But don't worry--you won't be among them. You can stay with your family. What's more, I'm ordering my scouts to block all the other passages to the Imperial City with landslides tonight. The only way the Huns can get to the Imperial City now is through the Tung-Shao Pass, and the Pass is filled with fortifications and is defended by the Cantonese archers."
"So, it wouldn't be a good idea for your family to be on the road to the Tung-Shao Pass, anyway . . . the Huns will be coming down that road, and the villagers wouldn't be able to get past the fortifications. "
Mulan sighed. "But there is still a chance that the Huns will pursue the villagers on the way to the Imperial City, right?"
"Mulan, I think I can trust you with some information that may help you."
Mulan tilted her head.
"There's a secret pass--called the Beifang Pass," Shang said. "No one knows about it except the Emperor, Chi Fu, and myself. The Beifang Pass is at the end of a trail that bypasses the mountains near the Tung-Shao Pass. On the road to the Tung-Shao Pass, you will see a very small trail branch off to the left--one that looks like it leads to nowhere. That is the trail that leads to Beifang Pass. You will have to travel ten miles further to get to the Imperial City, but at least the Huns won't be looking for anyone down that little trail."
Shang looked earnestly at Mulan. "But you must not let any Huns find you or anyone else on the trail. It could lead to disaster. If they do see you, you must send a dispatch to notify me immediately."
Mulan looked up and nodded. She shivered for a moment from the coolness of the winter air.
Shang paused again. Mulan could tell he had something on his mind.
"What is it, Shang?"
"Mulan--" Shang said abruptly. "Er . . . well, I'm just a little worried."
"What about?" she asked softly.
"I mean, my father was such a great leader. He knew everything about training and tactics. He did everything with such confidence, and he never lost a campaign until he encountered Shan-Yu."
"How can I possibly fill his shoes? A year ago I was a nobody, just another guy out of military training school. Yes, I was first in my class, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything on the battlefield."
"A year ago I was a nobody too," Mulan reminded him.
Her words felt reassuring to Shang.
"But that's it, too," Shang said. Everything I have accomplished, all the awards and adulation and honor that I have received, are all because of you, Mulan. Without you, I would be nothing. Without you, where would China be?"
Mulan glowed inside.
Shang sighed. "The fate of all China rests on my shoulders now. I have faith in my men, and in my plan. But what if something goes wrong?" he asked. "How can I do this? How can I lead all these troops? How--"
Mulan gently covered his mouth with her fingertips.
"For what it's worth . . .," Mulan began.
She pulled herself up close to him. ". . . I think you're a great general," she concluded, gazing deeply into his eyes.
Shang noticed that a lock of her hair had worked itself from out of her ribbon and drooped over her forehead. He brushed it back with his hand. Mulan looked up at Shang's silhouette in front of the moon.
Shang looked into her eyes reflecting the moonlight.
He gently cupped her face in his hands. He leaned over and tenderly kissed her forehead, then her cheek.
Then their mouths melted together.
After a few seconds, Shang backed away. He cleared his throat and straightened up, trying to look soldierly.
Before he could say anything, Mulan grabbed Shang's collar with both her hands, pulled him tightly against her, and kissed him passionately once more. After she slowly relaxed her grip, she gently stroked the side of his face with her fingertips, and smiled.
"Goodnight, Shang," Mulan whispered.
Mushu, sitting in Mulan's tent playing Xiang Qi with Cri-Kee, noticed his charge's odd expression as she returned.
"What's the matter with you?" the dragon inquired.
Mulan plopped down on her bedding with an enlightened look on her face.
"I think I am falling in love."
It was still dark when Liu felt a nudge on her toes. "Huh?" she
said, as she sat up groggily from her sleep.
She heard Mulan's voice out of the darkness. "Liu, c'mon. The soldiers are moving out of Wu Zhong this morning, and so you'll have to go with me.
"Humph," Liu groaned. "Thanks for volunteering me. I'll catch up with you in a few hours," she said, then plopped back down and turned over.
Stealing a leaf from Mushu's book, Mulan yanked the covers right off of Liu. "We've got to go."
"It's too early," Liu said. "Can't I sleep in until noon?"
"We've got a lot to do today. We need to catch up with my family on its way to the Imperial City."
Muttering, Liu got dressed and threw her few possessions into her saddlebags. Once outside, she saw that Mulan already had Khan ready for the journey.
They saw a figure emerge from a nearby tent. The man was rubbing his eyes and growling. "What is going on here?"
Mulan recognized the voice as Chi Fu's. "Liu and I are preparing to leave."
"Preparing to leave? Whatever for?"
"We're joining the unit that's escorting the villagers to the Imperial City."
Chi Fu stood there, glaring at Mulan. "Who gave you permission?"
"I have permission from Shang--the general himself."
"Oh? I was never notified. And since he is not here to verify your claim, I deny your leave of absence."
Mulan was dumbfounded. "I'm telling you the truth!"
"Truth? From a woman?" Chi Fu sneered. He was about to return to his tent, when Liu intercepted him.
"You can't do this!"
"Oh?" said Chi Fu, surprised at her audacity. "I am second in command here, and I am second in rank only to the Emperor himself. Who are you?" He stiffened up and looked down at her. "End of discussion."
Liu was undeterred. "Don't you think she's worried about her family? Don't you think she wants to be with them?" Liu wound up for the final punch. "Don't you think?"
Chi Fu looked edgy. "That's not the point--"
Liu cut him off. "Look at what she's done for you. She saved your life. She saved the Emperor. And you treat her like she's not worth anything!"
"Sh-she's not worth anything. She's a woman," Chi Fu stammered. "Everyone knows that women are the weaker sex."
Liu grew livid. "So what does that make you?" she exclaimed. "Maybe Mulan doesn't say anything to defend herself with you because she could be court-martialed, but I am not subservient to you!"
Chi Fu squealed. "I--I could have you arrested. I'll have you both arrested!"
Liu threw up her hands and bellowed in his face. "Then arrest us! Arrest us! Now!"
Chi Fu turned pale and cowered. "You're . . . you're insane! A madwoman!"
"No. I'm just Mulan's friend, that's all. Right, Mulan?"
Mulan just blinked, dumbfounded.
"You're just a pathetic little pip-squeak," Liu snarled at Chi Fu, pushing him over with the back of her hand. "Get out of our way."
Liu jumped on her horse. "Come on, Mulan. Get on your horse, and let's go."
Shrugging, Mulan climbed onto Khan, and they galloped off, leaving behind a stunned and speechless Chi Fu.
Mulan and Liu galloped over the bridge out of Wu Zhong, just as the sun peeked over the eastern hills. Mulan led them both onto a trail that took them on a southward course.
Mulan shifted in her saddle. "We are taking a different trail than the one I traveled on yesterday, because Shang is blocking all other roads to the Imperial City."
Liu looked confused. "Isn't your family and the villagers north of here?"
Mulan nodded. "I'm going back to my home first," she said with determination. "I just need to know. . . what is left of it."
"Are you sure we won't be seen?"
Mulan ignored her question. "When we get to my house, I hope you forgive me if I cry," Mulan said.
Liu nodded sympathetically.
Forty-five minutes into their ride, Mulan abruptly slowed Khan to a trot. Liu raced ahead of Mulan, then, puzzled, turned her horse around and returned.
"What is it?"
Mulan didn't answer. She pulled Khan to a stop, and fixed her eyes on the horizon.
"Mulan, quit playing games--"
Mulan quickly dismounted her horse, still staring at the trail. She stood there for a moment, listening intently. Then, with a grave look, whispered quickly to Liu.
"Liu, get off your horse!"
"Liu, you must not speak, and you must follow my every instruction. You must do everything as quickly and quietly as possible. Your life depends on it."
Liu gulped and jumped off her horse.
"Tie your horse with mine on that tree over there," Mulan continued. "Then run into the woods, and hide yourself under this sheet," she said, as she yanked out a tan piece of sackcloth from her saddlebags. "Lie face-down on the ground. Be completely still, and never look up."
In the distance, Liu could hear a thundering sound. And it was getting closer by the second.
Liu did as asked. Hurriedly, she pulled her mount to the side of the road. Amid the growing thunder, she fumbled with her horse's reins, and finally managed to tie her horse alongside Khan. Then, clutching the piece of cloth, sprinted into the woods, with Mulan running just behind her.
"Down!" Mulan shouted. Liu dove into the dirt, and with her heart thumping inside her chest, she covered herself with the sackcloth.
The thunder was now deafening.
Mulan herself dropped to the ground behind a large tree, and drew her sword. Sticking as close to the ground as possible, she peered around the tree. About ten seconds later, legions of gray mounted horsemen thundered past them.
Upon seeing the two riderless horses along the side of the road, the Huns stopped to investigate, and they dismounted. Dozens began to search the woods, with bows drawn. Mulan felt cold perspiration on her forehead. She turned around, and, pressing her back to the tree, she closed her eyes and held her breath.
One of the Huns on the road shouted to the others, and pointed to Khan. The other Huns, looking puzzled, withdrew from the woods. Mulan breathed a sigh of relief. The Huns were going to steal Khan, but at least Mulan's and Liu's lives were spared.
Mulan turned around and watched curiously as the Huns appeared to have a lengthy discussion about Khan. Some scratched their heads, and others seemed to offer suggestions.
Mulan was perplexed. Here was the mighty Hun army, who thought nothing of slaughtering entire villages. And now they were having trouble deciding whether to steal a couple of horses?
One of the Huns prodded Khan. Mulan's steed took offense and bucked the Hun in the rear. Rubbing his buttocks, the Hun cursed loudly at the horse, while the other Huns stood there laughing at him.
Finally, one of the Huns, who appeared to be a leader, shook his head at the others, and for some reason pointed down the road. The others nodded, and gave a couple of pats to Khan's flank. Then they mounted their own horses and abruptly galloped off. After a couple of minutes, the thunder of their horses' hooves faded to the north.
Mulan cautiously emerged from her hiding place. She looked over to Khan and the other horse, who were now munching grass, unmolested. She was completely bewildered.
"Liu, it's safe now."
Liu, poking her head from under the sackcloth, gave Mulan a sour look. "You didn't tell me the Huns were on this road."
"Er . . . sorry. It looks as though the Huns know the roads better than I thought."
And with that, Mulan realized that she had forgotten one of Sun-Tsu's most important principles: never underestimate your enemy.
Mulan and Liu galloped off towards Mulan's village. They rode for about five more minutes, when Mulan suddenly pulled Khan to a stop once again.
"Shhh," Mulan said. This time she looked to the road behind them.
"Mulan, quit. You're giving me the creeps," Liu said. They waited and listened for a couple more minutes. All was still.
Liu shrugged. "See--no Huns this time."
With a doubtful look, Mulan glanced once more behind her, then started Khan on a course towards her village once again.
About a half hour later, the two women reached Mulan's village.
Mulan turned around to Liu, gesturing her to follow her to her house. "Come
When Mulan reached the road leading to her house, she pulled Khan's reins until the steed halted. Mulan gave Liu a wistful glance, then slowly climbed down and walked toward the Fa family estate. With Khan's reins firmly in hand, Mulan clutched her hands tightly against her chest. Liu kept pace just behind her, looking sympathetically after her friend.
Mulan looked up. She saw the gray stone wall, and the gate still waving in the breeze as before. And the purple outline of her home.
Mulan gasped. "It--it's all right!"
Liu looked on, in disbelief.
Mulan turned around and smiled broadly to her. "The Huns--they didn't destroy it!" She threw down Khan's reins and ran to the front gate. "I don't believe it!"
She ran inside the front gate to see that everything was as it was when she left it the day before. She turned to Liu once again. "Look--it's all here!" she said breathlessly. "The house, the barn, the temple, the fence, all the walls! Nothing's been touched!"
Mulan saw beyond the pond that the Great Stone Dragon had been completely rebuilt and cleaned, and wondered for a moment how her father could have achieved this in so short a time. Come to think of it, wasn't it still broken the last time she was there--when she buried the family valuables? She was in such a hurry then, she took scant notice of it.
For a moment Mulan considered unearthing the valuables, but decided she would have more time once Shang's troops defeated the Huns and she returned home with her family. Smiling, Mulan mounted Khan, and she motioned to Liu to follow her into the village.
Mulan pulled Khan to a stop, and looked around. The deserted village had been ransacked. Piles of wood, cloth, and paper littered the streets. Several of the buildings had windows blown out, and their sides mutilated, as though the Huns had used them for some sort of target practice.
But even this amount of destruction was nothing compared to the devastation Mulan had seen in other villages. For the most part, Mulan's village was spared.
Mulan breathed a sigh of relief.
Mulan and Liu returned north to catch up with Mulan's family. They bypassed the spot where they had encountered the Huns. Mulan slowed Khan's pace, looking cautiously ahead for any sign of the Hun army. So far, all was clear, but Liu could tell that Mulan was concerned about something behind them.
"Mulan, you keep looking back," Liu said. "What's back there?"
Mulan kept silent. Then, finally, "It's nothing. I guess I'm just a little jumpy."
After a few more miles, Mulan again began to look uneasy. She pressed Khan to trot faster. "We should have caught up with the Huns by now. They must have skipped a rest and kept riding--towards the villagers and my family." They were now riding at a full gallop.
Liu quietly feared for her friend, and noticed that her horse could now just barely keep up with Mulan's, as Mulan was now prodding her horse to run at full speed. They kept up a very fast pace until Mulan saw the refugees in the distance. Mulan looked baffled.
"The villagers must have hidden while the Huns rode through here," Mulan said. "I hope everyone is all right."
Ten minutes later, Mulan found her family--who, surprisingly, seemed very calm.
"How did you manage to hide from the Huns today?" she asked her mother and father.
Fa Li looked puzzled. "Huns? Today?" She looked at her husband.
"We didn't see any Huns today," Fa Zhou said, shrugging. Grandma Fa nodded in agreement.
"I don't understand," Mulan said. "Liu and I saw them on the road just to the south of here not more than a few hours ago--heading this way."
"They never reached us."
Mulan was worried. Too many strange things seemed to be happening. "They can't just vanish into thin air."
"You know the Huns are masters of stealth, Mulan," her father said. "One moment you'll be marching along, thinking you're safe. Then, out of nowhere, they'll swoop down on you by the thousands in a gigantic ambush."
Mulan nodded, remembering Shan-Yu's ambush at the Tung-Shao Pass the previous spring.
"Good heavens!" Grandmother Fa exclaimed. "Could they swoop down on us here?"
"They could," Mulan said. "But their ultimate goal is the Emperor. And the way we're going is out of the way of the Tung-Shao Pass, which is the only way the Huns know how to get to the Imperial City."
Mulan smiled. "It's all right, Grandma. In just a short while we'll be on another trail, where our biggest worry will be highway robbers, and we have enough protection against that."
Liu looked skeptical. "Oh? With Ling in there? Now I really feel safe!"
Mulan chuckled to herself. In spite of her sarcasm, There was something about the way Liu said that--indicating Ling meant more to Liu than she'd admit.
"Yeah. Ling," Mulan said. "Along with Chien-Po and Yao, and twenty soldiers from Wu Zhong, each armed with swords and bows. There is also a cart with half a dozen cannons. That is more than enough to keep away robbers."
"I don't see Yao, Chien-Po or any of the soldiers," Liu said. "For that matter, most of the villagers are missing. Where did everybody go?"
Mulan's family looked around, puzzled that nearly all of the carts had been abandoned. Mulan then noticed that a huge crowd had gathered on one side of the camp.
"What in the world--?"
Little Brother jumped off Fa Zhou's cart, barked excitedly, then raced to the middle of the crowd. Mulan and Liu chased after Little Brother, who by this time had climbed upon a tall crate, and was now panting and sitting up in a begging pose. Mulan stopped at the edge of the crowd and burst out laughing.
Little Brother had parked himself next to the most popular person in the camp. There stood Chien-Po, wearing an apron and chef's hat, spatula in one hand, spoon in the other, standing over a huge sizzling wok. He was tossing out gourmet dishes to the eager crowd as quickly as he cooked them.
Yao, in the middle of the crowd, looked over to Mulan. "Hey, Mulan! You've got to try the greatest Egg Foo Young in the world--right here!" he said, drooling.
Mulan grinned. "Better than a knuckle sandwich?"
Yao was about to answer, when he raised up his bowl to catch another Egg Foo Young patty, and promptly devoured it.
Ling walked up to Liu, offering her a bite from his chopsticks. "Sesame chicken?" he asked.
Liu looked at him coquettishly. "Thank you." She took his bowl, as she was not about to engage in the intimate act of being fed by him. She turned and strutted away, leaving Ling with a hurt look and a single piece of chicken on his chopsticks.
Ling turned to Mulan, crestfallen. "Maybe Liu isn't the girl for me."
"Why do you say that?"
Ling shrugged. "She--she's not at all what I thought she was."
Mulan chuckled. "Doesn't her eyes shine like stars?"
"Isn't she paler than the moon?"
"Well, there you are. The girl of your dreams."
Ling shook his head. "But . . . she . . ."
"Has a brain and always speaks her mind?"
"Yeah. That's it."
"Well, Ling, then you're the luckiest man on earth. You've found a girl who is paler than the moon, with eyes that shine like stars and who has a brain!" She smiled.
"But--she doesn't like me."
"Are you sure of that?"
"Well, she doesn't act like it."
Mulan paused, in thought. "I wouldn't give up just yet. Do you like her?"
"Oh, yeah. A lot."
"Then hang in there. I have the feeling she'll come around." She smiled again. "I may look like a man, but I still have a woman's intuition."
After lunch, the villagers and their escort was on its way, on its final leg to the Imperial City. As she prepared to depart with the others, Mulan looked down and saw her dragon Guardian and his cricket friend on the ground below her.
Mushu waved up to Mulan. "Hey--remember me? Boy, are you ever elusive. How am I supposed to protect you when you're wandering all over the Empire?"
Mulan just looked down to him and smiled. Mushu and Cri-Kee jumped up to join her.
"Coming in to the home stretch, eh?" Mushu asked.
"Yeah, it won't be long now. We should reach the Imperial City within a couple of hours. I'll be relieved when it's all over."
"Looks as though your friend Shang has matters pretty well under control. I can't wait to see the Huns' butts get kicked again. Too bad they didn't really need you, eh?"
Mulan frowned. "Of course they need me. What I'm doing now is important, too."
Mushu climbed upon Mulan's shoulder. "Yeah, well . . . it looks like I won't be making you a war hero like last time," he sighed. "Still, it's been fun. At least you didn't get yourself killed."
Mulan grinned. "I didn't do this to be a hero."
"No--but it doesn't hurt my cause any for you to be a hero again," Mushu said with a wink.
Without thinking, Mulan reached under her sash and pulled out some old flower petals. She stared down at them. They were from the flower her father gave her long ago, when she left her home with Shang. She had completely forgotten about it. Mulan pondered over the withered petals for a moment, then shook her head and stuffed them back under her sash.
Shang was waiting for the Huns at the Tung-Shao Pass. Chi Fu had arrived a short time earlier with the Wu Zhong recruits. With the added reinforcements, the defensive position at the Tung-Shao Pass was now nearly invincible.
Shang looked up, puzzled. Arriving over the hill towards Shang was a huge entourage. These were definitely not the Huns who were approaching his fortifications at the Tung-Shao Pass.
"These aren't Mulan's villagers, are they?" Shang asked Chi Fu.
Chi Fu humphed. "It might as well be. I could just imagine that woman bringing everyone up here. But no. By the looks of it, this is a supply caravan from the west, on its way to the Imperial City."
Shang chortled. "Supply caravan? Oh no . . . they weren't supposed to be here until next week!"
Shang rode out to the huge approaching train to order them back, but when he reached the first wagons, he was overwhelmed by dozens of confused people asking all sorts of questions about why the Pass looked different than usual. And still the caravan plodded forward.
There were a hundred head of cattle, and just as many sheep, ten cartloads of firework rockets, fifteen cartloads of rice, and dozens of various cartloads of people, fowl, fruit and merchants' items. The site of one of Mulan's greatest triumphs was now the scene of silly chaos.
Dozens of carts rolled around aimlessly in the snow. Some of the sheep had fallen into the horse traps. They were unhurt, but they were difficult to pull out. Some of the oxen roamed free and stampeded over the army tents.
Shang slapped his forehead and shook his head. "I don't believe this!"
It was getting to be late afternoon now, and Mulan was leading
the refugees through the Beifang Pass.
Beifang Pass was quite different from the Tung-Shao Pass. The Beifang Pass was very narrow, only about twelve paces wide, flanked by snowless rocky cliffs. After a very long hike, Mulan, the Gang of Three, her handful of troops, and the refugees crossed a narrow footbridge into a valley, where the west wall of the Imperial City lay before them--about three-fourths of a mile away, and the highlands at the Tung-Shao Pass were seen off to their right.
The Gang of Three walked along gleefully, as the sight of the great city walls loomed ever closer.
When they reached the city walls, and were nearing the gates, Yao called to the soldiers, Liu, and the villagers. He climbed on top of a cart, and addressed the crowd.
"We're almost finished with our long journey. There--beyond those walls, is your sanctuary." The crowd applauded.
Yao continued, proudly. "As I speak, General Li Shang's forces are defeating the Huns." he said, amid loud "oohs" from the crowd.
"But before we reach the city and disband," Yao said, "we've got to thank everyone who got us here. First, Chien-Po, our Master Chef."
Chien-Po stepped up onto the cart, and waved to the cheering crowd.
"Then there's our very own Ling, and his girlfriend, Liu!"
"Girlfriend?" Liu exclaimed. But before she knew it, Ling had taken her by the hand and pulled her onto the cart with him.
Ling smiled sheepishly to the crowd, not quite knowing what to do.
"Kiss her, Ling," Yao said, aside.
"Yeah, go ahead and kiss her," Chien-Po encouraged.
The crowd, overhearing, joined in. "A kiss! A kiss!" they all chanted.
Ling, embarrassed, looked apologetically to Liu.
Liu gave Ling an annoyed look for a moment. Then she straightened up and smiled.
"Oh," she said, "what the hell . . ."
And, as soon as she said that, she planted a big one on Ling's lips. Ling's eyes popped out. The crowd was in an uproar.
Ling looked at her, quizzically.
"You're an idiot, Ling!" she said. "Just an idiot!"
"Oh," Ling said, his smile fading.
"But who says I could never love an idiot?"
Ling looked at her for a moment, puzzled. She smiled brightly at him. He grinned broadly, and, hand-in-hand, they waved to the cheering crowd. Mulan beamed.
Yao grinned. "And, of course, we must thank China's greatest hero, our very own Captain Fa Mulan!"
Mulan was greeted with a wild ovation that lasted for ten minutes. She couldn't believe it--these were the same townspeople she thought despised her. When Mulan looked down and saw tears in her mother's and father's eyes, she had to fight her own tears.
Chien-Po helped Mulan onto the cart.
"Speech!" she heard shouted from the crowd.
She shook her head and turned to Yao. "I don't know what to say. I've never given a speech before."
"Be at peace with yourself," Chien-Po said.
"And remember, you're among friends now," Mushu said, looking up to her and smiling proudly.
Mulan smiled back to him, then turned around to address the crowd.
"I--I can't believe I've come this far," Mulan said. "All this started when I took my father's place in the Imperial Army. It was the only way I could save him. He's here right now, by the way--right over there. Hi, Baba!"
The crowd laughed, and Fa Zhou waved.
Mulan smiled and continued. "Later, I came to realize that I also wanted to do something that I could do well--and be proud of it."
She looked out to them. "Remember this, all of you. Do whatever it is that you know in your heart is your calling, and honor will naturally follow."
Mulan looked down to her family, and then over to her friends. "Even then, I had a lot of help along the way. Without Shang, Chien-Po, Yao, Ling, and Liu, I would never have accomplished any of this."
"For the longest time, I wondered what having a true friend would be like." She looked over to them again. "Now I know."
She looked down to Mushu and Cri-Kee. "And where would I be without you two?"
Mushu and Cri-Kee sighed and blushed.
Mulan gleamed. Another chapter in her life was coming to a close, and she would soon be home with her family again.
She addressed the crowd again. "Once everyone gets to the city, we . . ."
Mulan abruptly stopped.
Liu looked at Mulan, totally confused. Mulan looked as though she was suddenly ill. "Mulan, are you all right? Mulan!"
The Gang was frightened. There was something terribly wrong with their friend. She just stood, staring out beyond the crowd.
Mulan just moaned sorrowfully. "No . . . no . . .," she kept repeating. "It . . . it can't be," she lamented.
Liu looked over to where Mulan was staring, and shrieked in terror.
The gigantic Hun army was crossing the bridge from the Beifang Pass, and pouring into the valley.
The Gang of Three stood in awe.
Mushu nearly fainted. "Oh, no. No. This is definitely not in the battle plan."
The Huns kept coming endlessly--dozens, then hundreds, then thousands. They fanned out across the entire northwest end of the valley.
Mulan's grandmother gasped, and quickly began saying prayers to her ancestors.
"To the city!" Mulan cried to the villagers. Terrified screams filled the air as the villagers ran to the city gates. Panicked, they pushed their carts along with every bit of strength they could muster.
At least the villagers were within four hundred paces of the city gates. But only twenty foot soldiers in the field and a few dozen guards inside the Imperial City were on hand to stand against the entire Hun army.
Ling pushed Liu's cart along. "Hurry. Get to the city now! I have to stay here." As Liu's cart rolled away from him, Ling stood as he saw the distinctly worried expression upon Liu's face as it faded into the distance.
Mulan swallowed hard as she looked pitifully at her band of defenders. Maybe they could make a stand--just long enough for help to arrive in the form of Shang and the Cantonese archers.
"Mushu!" Mulan called to her Guardian. "Go to Shang at the Tung-Shao Pass. Tell him we need help--now."
Mushu hoped that this would be his chance, finally, to prove that he could act selflessly. Mushu saluted Mulan. "Let's go, Cri-Kee." They boarded a nearby box kite, caught a stiff breeze from the north, and took off towards the mountains.
Mulan gathered with her handful of soldiers and told them her plan. They nodded silently, and took defensive positions. The soldiers watched nervously as the Huns' horse archers dismounted and prepared to fire upon them.
Shang had finally restored order at the Tung-Shao Pass, and he ordered the citizens' carts and livestock to settle in just to the edge of his fortifications. He noticed a box kite flying up the slope from the Imperial City. Off of it tumbled Mushu and Cri-Kee.
"General Shang! General Shang!" Mushu cried. "I have an urgent message from Mulan--she is in great danger!"
"Who--or what--are you?" Chi Fu exclaimed, seeing Mushu.
"No time to explain. Just trust me when I say I'm a friend."
Chi Fu was about to say something, when Shang waved his hand. "What happened to Mulan?" Shang asked.
"The Huns went around you--they followed Mulan down that other trail and they're about to attack the Imperial City now. And Mulan is trapped down there."
Alarmed, Shang turned quickly to look down into the valley.
The Huns discharged their first volley of arrows at Mulan's unit. Suddenly, the bright blue afternoon sky turned dark over Mulan's troops as a cloud of arrows hovered above them.
"Down!" cried Mulan, and her men dropped to the ground and hid themselves under their shields, just as the arrows poured down all around them.
The Huns shot another volley at the small band of defenders, so they had to stay hidden under their shields. Mulan glanced from under her shield to see that the Huns' lancemen were marching into position. They were moving in for the kill.
The Imperial City was in sheer panic. Word was spreading of the imminent Hun onslaught, and so the townsfolk ran desperately to their homes, and locked themselves inside behind tightly bolted doors and windows. Mulan's mother shuddered in fright as she watched the huge iron doors of the Palace slam shut. The hapless refugees had to fend for themselves.
Tears filled Mulan's eyes. She couldn't help thinking that all this was a result of her carelessness: the Huns had followed her on the road and on through the Beifang Pass. She now realized that it was too late to expect help to arrive, and her men did little good by merely cowering under their shields.
"Men, up!" she shouted. "We're going to fire back! Grab the cannons!"
The others scrambled to the handful of cannons on the cart. Mulan untied Khan's harness from the cart, and mounted her horse.
The others aimed the cannons the best they could while dodging arrows, but they discharged the cannons in such haste, their aim was haphazard and ineffective.
What they heard next made their hair stand on end. The deafening war cry from the Hun army--thousands of voices at once--filled the air.
The bulk of the Mongolian force charged, five thousand strong, in a mad stampede. They were not far, now--perhaps a half mile away. Meanwhile, the Hun archers continued to pour arrows into the Imperial ranks.
Mulan's comrades were good at dodging arrows, but this was not the shower of arrows they faced from Shan-Yu's men at the Tung-Shao Pass. This time the shafts came down like a rainstorm. One arrow struck Yao in the shoulder pad, and he fell to the ground, yelling. Another stuck in Chien-Po's breastplate, and he threw down his helmet and grabbed at the arrow. Another arrow ripped across Ling's shin guard with such force, it twirled him around and sent him sprawling. Mulan sat on her steed, grief-stricken, as she watched her friends fall, one by one. The cannons were exhausted, and the few defenders that remained were now scattering in disarray.
It's all over, Mulan thought. China will fall in a few short minutes. All of my friends will die and the Emperor will be executed. My family, if they survive at all, will live forever in dishonor. And it will be all my fault!
She thought that if she were to die, at least she could die with a little bit of honor. Sobbing quietly, Mulan leaned over and gave Khan a farewell hug.
Then she suddenly straightened up.
Mulan yanked her reins sideways, steered Khan straight toward the heart of the Mongolian attack, and charged.
Blinded by tears, her teeth clenched, her heart pounding, she charged alone. She could hear the shriek of the volley of arrows as they zipped past her ears. But neither she nor Khan had yet been struck, so Mulan, emboldened, lowered her head and pressed forward.
Mulan remembered how she once assailed her father when he said he would die for honor. Remembering her angry words to him stung Mulan now, as much as her salty tears stung her cheeks.
With an extra kick from his rider to drive him on, Khan doubled his gait.
The Huns balked for a moment, astonished at the lone figure rushing toward them in what they thought was surely a suicide attack.
Fa Mulan rode on.
From his prone position, Ling called out to Yao and Chien-Po. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah," Yao said. "The arrows didn't pierce our armor."
Ling looked up and spied Mulan ahead of him, and he scrambled to alert the others. They all tried in vain to call Mulan back.
"Come on, we've got to help!" Yao shouted to the others.
Yao grimly noted that this time there was no snow-covered mountain to bury the enemy in an avalanche.
The Gang of Three ran toward the woman on horseback.
Some of the guards positioned on the walls of the Imperial City witnessed the battle in progress outside. One of the guards heard the Gang's shouting--he thought he heard something about Mulan. Looking carefully at the charging soldier in the distance, the guard recognized Mulan.
"Look! It's Mulan!" he shouted to some other guards nearby. The other guards immediately peered over to the direction the first guard was pointing.
Some of the other soldiers stationed on the city walls began shouting. For a moment they wondered why Mulan was charging towards the Huns, but then they rushed towards the city gate to join the other soldiers outside. Fa Zhou listened carefully, trying to discern what the yelling was about. He grabbed his cane, stood up, and limped up the steps to the top of the city walls.
"It's Mulan! It's Mulan!" the guards echoed, their numbers increasing. A few townspeople poked their heads out their doors to see what the commotion was about. The guards began to leave their posts in greater numbers to run out the city gates in Mulan's direction. The townsfolk, emptying into the streets, began to join in the shouting.
Fa Zhou looked over the side of the city walls, watched his daughter riding alone toward the massed Huns, and gasped in horror.
So too did Li Shang. The young General, positioned about a mile away at the Tung-Shao Pass, recognized the person with the green armor and black horse charging toward the enemy. He watched helplessly. Although Shang's archers and cannons were at a higher altitude than the Huns, they were still well out of range. And Shang could not march his men forward in time to save the Imperial City, the Emperor, or Mulan.
Mushu gulped. He was nowhere near Mulan to protect her. Although he could see some guards rush out the city gates to aid Mulan, they were still hopelessly outnumbered.
"It's all over!" Chi Fu cried. "Nothing can save the Emperor now!"
"If we had a tower full of fireworks, I could get rid of those Huns like I got rid of Shan-Yu," Mushu said.
"Well, we have fireworks--tons of them," Shang said, gesturing to the fireworks carts.
"Good luck trying to get all the Huns to come up here and into those carts," Chi Fu snorted. "We're doomed . . . and all because of that woman!"
"If only we could bring the fireworks to them," Mushu sighed.
"Nah. Even if we fired all those rockets at them at once, it would do nothing," Chi Fu said.
Shang sighed. He looked at the carts, and then over to his archers.
"Wait a minute . . ."
Shang remembered the archery tournament at the training camp. "Mulan's idea just might work," he said.
"We can use the fireworks!" Shang said.
Chi Fu was skeptical. "A foot-long rocket is harmless."
Shang's eyes narrowed in thought. "But a rocket-boosted arrow is another matter."
He whipped around. "Unload those rockets from the carts!" Shang shouted to his men. "There's not a moment to lose!"
The entire Imperial City was now stirring. There were thousands
in the streets, calling out Mulan's name and running to the gates. Men, women,
and even children grabbed crude weapons as the ran from their homes. Guard soldiers
broke open the Imperial arsenals and tossed out cannons and pikes to citizens
as they rushed past. People mounted every horse that was available, and charged
in Mulan's direction.
Liu saw the military equipment available, and nodded at the opportunity. "Well, I'm not just going to stand around," Liu told Mulan's family. "Not while she needs my help."
Fa Li gave her husband a knowing glance, as they watched Liu quickly strap on a suit of armor, grab a sword, and run out of the city with the throngs.
Meanwhile, Shang's men were ready to fire, rockets fastened securely onto their arrows.
"Light the fuses!" Shang called, and the men did as ordered.
Shang shouted out the second command. "Loose the arrows!"
The Imperial archers loosed twenty-two hundred arrows at once at the attacking Huns. As one by one the rocket boosters ignited, the arrows soared, and sailed into the Huns' ranks.
The Huns froze. They could not even see where these arrows were coming from, let alone strike back at whoever was sending them.
Mulan, caught off-guard, watched as arrows flew over her head and onward toward the Mongolians. She pulled Khan to a halt and looked behind her. She shuddered at what appeared to be a mammoth dark carpet crawling along the ground towards her from the city. She blinked, realizing that it was not a carpet at all: it was people--tens of thousands of them--rushing in her direction.
As they caught up with Mulan's comrades, the city townsfolk handed supplies and weapons to the Gang of Three and the other men. Receiving waves of fresh cannons from inside the city, Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po shot shell after shell at the Huns with deadly accuracy.
This Hun army was the most formidable enemy to yet march on China's soil, but now even they were overwhelmed. Fifty thousand frenzied citizens were now rushing straight at them, and hundreds of rocket-powered arrows rained upon them every second. The army that appeared only minutes before to be inevitable conquerors was now being routed.
The Mongolian morale collapsed. Watching the lone green-armored figure upon the black stallion charging straight at them, followed by a sea of humanity, while arrows flew, unanswered, into their ranks, was too much for them. They threw down their swords, bows, quivers, shields--anything they carried--and ran. Their mounted horsemen turned their animals around and retreated at full speed.
The Huns' earlier confidence in victory proved to be their undoing. There was only one retreat--back through the extremely narrow Beifang Pass. Thousands of desperate Mongol warriors fought with each other to escape through the bottleneck. The small bridge to the Pass collapsed under the sheer weight of them, and dozens of men and horses stumbled into the water. Trampling over one another, they clogged the entrance to the Pass, cutting off the last hope for safety for any of them. Panic turned into mayhem.
Shang watched as the masses from the city pursued the Huns. "Hold your fire!" he shouted to his archers.
The Cantonese archers rested on their bows and, astounded, watched as the tide of battle turned.
Mushu jumped up and down. "Woo hoo hoo, baby!" He slapped high-fives with Cri-Kee.
"I'm going down there," Shang called to his men. "You come too, Chi Fu."
"Hey, can we hitch a ride?" Mushu grinned.
Shang mounted his horse, Mushu and Cri-Kee jumped on behind him, and, with Chi Fu following on his own horse, galloped at full speed toward the valley.
Like a great ocean tidal wave, the multitudes engulfed the Huns and simply washed them away.
Before they were swept away by the Chinese crowd, a few remaining Hun archers fired a sprinkle of random shots. As the people rushed past her, Mulan shouted out directions to them, lifting her sword high in the air. At that moment a Hun archer fired a shot--one of the last from the Mongols. It was a chance shot, but it scored a direct hit on Mulan, under her raised right arm. The arrow slammed into Mulan's right side, split her leather armor, and buried deep inside her chest cavity. Clutching her side, Mulan dropped her sword and fell off Khan.
The last of the once-mighty Hun army was overrun by the Chinese masses, and every last remaining Hun was captured. It was all over.
Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po pushed through the crowd that had encircled the person bleeding on the ground. Their hearts stopped as they watched their beloved friend rock back and forth, pulling her hair in intense pain. Tears flowing from her eyes, Mulan fought to keep from screaming. Chien-Po cradled Mulan's head in his lap while Yao pushed a wad of cloth into her mouth for her to bite on. Ling and Liu ran to the city to find a doctor.
A few minutes later, Shang arrived with Mushu and Cri-Kee. Upon seeing Chien-Po and Yao, they all jumped off the horse excitedly.
"Wow, did you see that?" Shang exclaimed. "They just blew the Huns away!"
"Just socked it to 'em, baby!" Mushu shouted with glee.
"And the arrows!" Shang continued. "I'd never believe it if I didn't see--"
He stopped cold. He saw Yao's and Chien-Po's expressions, and then saw Mulan lay before him.
Shang dropped to his knees next to her. Mushu and Cri-Kee sat, stunned.
"Set up a tent here for her!" Shang ordered, and some of the soldiers began constructing a makeshift tent above their heads.
Shang looked at Mulan in horror. She cracked a weak smile. "Sorry," she whispered wryly. "I mean, sorry you had to see that," she said, then laughed feebly.
Shang gulped. He remembered those words. They were the first Mulan ever said to him. He took Mulan's hand and squeezed it.
Mushu gasped. He was sent to protect Mulan, and now his mission was a disaster.
Cri-Kee, looking worried, chattered something to Mushu.
"Save her life?" Mushu said. "I don't have that kind of power." Mushu suddenly felt very small and helpless.
He turned to Cri-Kee. "This can't be happening. If Mulan dies . . ."
He couldn't finish. It was unthinkable.
Chapter 15 illustration...to view, copy & paste the following address in a new browser window (but remove any capital Xs): ?fileid28007
The orange sunset was fading, and darkness began to fall on the
China had again achieved a glorious victory, but tonight there was no celebration. Its greatest hero had fallen.
Mulan coughed, and blood filled her mouth. Although the arrow had missed her heart, Mulan was gravely wounded. There was little the doctor could do, except to carefully pull the arrow shaft out of Mulan's body, pack the wound with vinegar-soaked bandages, and pray.
Running from the Imperial City, Mulan's family rushed to her side. Mulan looked over to all her friends and family, who stood with sorrowful faces. She tried to sit up, but found she was now too weak. She closed her eyes while she gnashed her teeth from the pain. Her father held her.
"Stay with me, Baba."
"Yes," Fa Zhou said softly. "Always."
Mulan could tell by the looks of the faces around her that hope was fading for her. "Please--take me home."
They nodded to each other, understanding she didn't want to die here--in a lonely field by the Imperial City.
Yao brought Fa Zhou's ox-driven cart to them, and he and the other two of the Gang gently lifted Mulan onto it. Fa Li climbed into the cart and held her daughter's head in her lap. Shang fashioned a makeshift pillow out of bundles of clothing, and tenderly covered Mulan with a soft blanket. Mushu and Cri-Kee hid among the straw in the cart. Liu, sobbing, sat on the cart, next to her friend.
Mulan's father mounted Khan, and sat, proud and tall, on the back of the family stallion.
The cart, Mulan's family, her friends, and a crowd of onlookers began a silent procession down the road.
Shang glared down from his horse to Chi Fu, who, standing at the side of the road, appeared not about to join the entourage.
"Aren't you coming with us?" Shang demanded.
"The Emperor needs me. I can't leave him now," Chi Fu said sheepishly.
Shang was indignant. "After all she's done for us--done for you, and this is your thanks. I should have known better than to expect more from the likes of you."
Shang turned his reins and galloped off.
The Emperor's Counsel stood alone in the cold wind. The wiry man reflected for a moment.
The humble cart passed by. Chi Fu took off his hat and quietly bowed to Mulan.
He had never voluntarily bowed to a woman before.
The cart slowly bumped its way through the night, back to Mulan's village. Thousands of lantern-bearing citizens from the city followed the cart on its sad journey through the darkness. Hundreds of soldiers braved the long walk so they could be with their Great Heroine to the end.
Mulan's wound bled slowly through the night, and she grew weaker with each passing hour.
It was still dark when the cart arrived at Mulan's house.
Grandma Fa, bearing her lantern, walked to the family temple for prayer. Ling, Chien-Po and Yao dismounted and prepared to lift Mulan from the cart. Fa Zhou pushed them away, and threw his crutch to the ground.
Summoning all his strength, Mulan's father lifted her from the cart. He turned around, and, with his daughter in his arms, he limped, one step at a time, toward the house. With each step, Mulan's father gritted his teeth from the grueling pain in his leg. But he never stopped.
Fa Zhou stumbled and fell to his knees, and he let out a mournful cry.
"Please let me help . . . ," Shang said, about to lift Mulan from Fa Zhou's arms.
Fa Zhou closed his eyes and clenched his teeth. "Let me carry . . . my daughter!"
He stood up, grieving. "My only child . . ."
Cradling her in his arms, he staggered the rest of the way to Mulan's room, and gently laid her in her bed by the window.
"Mulan?" her father whispered.
She was sleeping quietly.
Fa Zhou pulled the covers over her dying body, knelt down, and wept.
This scene was too much to bear, even for Mushu. The little dragon pulled himself away from the house, with Cri-Kee following, and made his way in the darkness through the garden, toward the Fa family temple. He watched as Grandma Fa tearfully finished her prayers and headed back to the house.
It began to rain.
Inside the small temple, Mushu could see the First Ancestor's specter looking toward the house across the garden. Mushu expected the Ancestor to rail at him.
"Look, I know what you're going to say," Mushu said, almost in tears. "I was supposed to protect her, and I blew it. All right then, I blew it. I know I will spend eternity as gong-master, but isn't there anything that can be done for Mulan now?"
The Great Ancestor was surprisingly calm. He, too, was grief-stricken. "You helped bring great honor to her and her family."
He looked at Mushu for a moment. "Greater honor than anyone in China," the Ancestor said.
The First Ancestor looked back toward the house, with a resigned expression on his face. "You did everything you could, Mushu. Whatever happens now is out of your hands. There is nothing that can be done unless someone offers a great sacrifice."
Mushu was relieved to learn he was not demoted, but otherwise the Ancestor's words gave him little consolation. With Cri-Kee chattering sadly at his side, the dragon slowly wandered through the garden in the predawn darkness, and stopped at the base of the magnolia tree by the pond. The tree, still bare for the winter, was dripping raindrops, and all of its flowers lay dead at Mushu's feet.
Mushu sat, in despair.
Then he was struck with a thought. He went back to the family temple, and, looking up sadly, spoke to the First Ancestor again.
"Look, I'm willing to make you a deal."
Fa Li lit candles and incense around Mulan's bedside, and knelt
by her daughter, holding her hand. The flickering candles cast dancing shadows
around the dark, quiet room.
Khan looked through the window to where Mulan lay dying, and nickered sadly. Little Brother whimpered softly, pushed his nose under Mulan's limp hand, and nestled under her arm. Mulan, stirring a little, slowly stroked the little dog's head a few times, then closed her eyes again.
Everyone looked expectantly to Grandmother Fa as she entered the room. They hoped that what she said about the Ancestors was true, and that just maybe she could arrange for a miracle. But Grandma Fa looked to the others and slowly shook her head. She wanted to offer a sacrifice to the Ancestors, as she had for her husband many years ago, but there was nothing of value left in the house.
All of Mulan's friends and family kept vigil by Mulan's bedside, and thousands gathered in the streets of the village with lanterns and candles, waiting silently for the final grim news.
Liu collapsed in tears, and Ling knelt over her with his arm around her for comfort. Yao turned away and stood at the doorway, and noticed that he, too, was crying. All was silent, except for Chien-Po's quiet humming of an ancient chant.
Shang watched as Mulan's breathing grew shallow and her face pale. She seemed to be at peace.
Studying her face, he silently blamed himself--rational or not--for not coming to her aid sooner. And for not being closer to Mulan. He knew she wanted closeness from him.
Shang remembered the time he first saw her--when he thought she was a "he." Shang remembered befriending Ping, and how grateful he was when Ping consoled him when his father died. He remembered how Ping saved his life at the Tung-Shao Pass. He remembered how Mulan saved the Emperor, and how Shang returned Fa Zhou's helmet just so he could see her again. He remembered riding next to her again, and that first kiss in the moonlight. He remembered that courageous woman charging alone against the entire Hun army. Shang began to get choked up.
He was now realizing how very special Mulan was to him. And at any moment now, she would be gone.
Shang had seen death many times before. But not even his own father's death crushed him in the way this scene did. The broad-shouldered veteran stood by Mulan's family, with his face in his hands. Fa Li held him, and they wept together. Defeated and exhausted with grief, they all sank to their knees. For all at once, they had lost a daughter, a best friend, a sweetheart, and the greatest warrior China had ever known.
The first light of dawn appeared on the horizon.
At that very moment, Mulan's wound stopped bleeding.
Chien-Po was the first to notice. He was still murmuring a chant when he looked over to Mulan. He sadly figured the bleeding ceased because Mulan's heart had stopped beating. But when he looked closer, he saw that Mulan was still breathing. He stopped chanting and motioned to Shang. Shang, Ling, and Liu looked up from their grieving.
The rain had stopped, and beams of the dawn's first sunlight shone between the clouds. It illuminated Mulan's face, and reflected off her white satin sheets, creating a golden glow around the room.
Yao peered in through the doorway. Mulan's color seemed to return to her cheeks. Everyone, with their mouths wide, stood amazed at the miracle they were witnessing. Fa Zhou sat up from his kneeling position, and Fa Li turned around, wide-eyed.
Grandma Fa ran to the garden. The sky was clearing. The silhouette of the magnolia tree could be seen against the brightening dawn sky. Amid the barren limbs of the magnolia tree appeared a tiny new bud, upon the very branch--the very spot--from where the late-blooming flower had once fallen.
Breathlessly, Grandma Fa ran to the family temple. "You did this! Didn't you? Didn't you? Oh, thank you, thank you, O Ancestors!" Grandma Fa exclaimed.
There was no response.
All that Grandma could see was Cri-Kee sitting alone on the stone floor, crying. She stared at Cri-Kee as he lay there sobbing. The little guy looked as though he was saying farewell to a friend.
Within a few weeks Mulan was healthy enough to walk from her bed.
For a time, her family feared that the wound might infect Mulan, but there was
never an infection, and so her recovery continued to progress. Still, she needed
help to walk to the dining table or the garden. At times, even a trip to the
dinner table was a painful undertaking. But her parents were always there for
comfort. Grandmother, too.
Although Shang couldn't suspend his duties as general, he granted Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po a special leave of absence so they could watch Mulan's progress during the times he was away. They hired a modest shack down the road from the Fa residence, bartering for the rent with the local farmer. Liu was invited to stay at the Fa home until Mulan completely recovered. Liu slept in Mulan's room, and was her close companion during her recovery. Whenever pain kept Mulan awake at night, Liu would talk to her and cheer her. They had lengthy talks about guys. It became clear to Mulan that Liu thought about Ling all the time. As often as possible, Liu would sneak down the road to spend time with her new boyfriend.
Shang was now coming by more and more often, saying he just wanted to check Mulan's progress so he could report it to the Emperor. Mulan smiled. She could see through Shang's charade--she knew he cared about her and wanted to see her. Though she was still weak and very sore, Mulan was always anxious for Shang's visits and his tender kisses.
After sharing dinner, Shang would help Mulan walk to the garden, and sit with her on the bench under the shade of the magnolia tree. There they would spend quiet afternoons together holding hands, until it was time for Shang to go home.
Shang came over for another afternoon dinner.
Mulan wore a pretty casual dress, and because she still easily felt chilled, she wrapped herself in a blanket while they sat together on the bench. On this day, two months into her recovery, Mulan had something interesting to tell Shang.
"Chi Fu surprised me yesterday. He personally delivered a message from the Imperial City."
Shang was incredulous. "Chi Fu did that?"
Mulan smiled and nodded. "Yes. And he was actually very nice to me!"
"Come to think of it, he hasn't said a bad thing about you since the battle at the Imperial City," Shang said. "He's a whole new person."
Mulan continued. "The message was from the Emperor. He wants me to visit him when I am fully recovered."
"No doubt the Emperor plans to give more praises and gifts to you."
Mulan blushed. "Why on earth would he praise me?"
"Are you joking? You saved China again."
"Nah . . . it was the citizens of the Imperial City. And your archers."
"The townsfolk would never have conquered the Huns if you hadn't led the charge. And my archers would have been useless, if it hadn't been for your idea. So you see--the victory was entirely yours."
Mulan's face shone with appreciation.
As usual, Shang left in time to return to the Imperial City before dark. This time, he left Mulan with an especially warm kiss and embrace. It was always hard for Mulan to see him leave. But she knew he would be back again soon.
Mulan never knew what happened to Mushu.
She knew she had last seen him at the battlefield, and so he must have disappeared that night. Cri-Kee's sad face told Mulan that Mushu had sacrificed himself to save her life--but exactly how would forever remain a mystery.
Mulan prayed that Mushu would reappear someday, but he never returned. The space he once occupied as a stone figure in the family temple rafters remained empty. Nor did Mulan ever see the brass dragon incense burner again.
Mulan slowly walked to the temple and prayed for her dragon Guardian. She never had a chance to thank him for his sacrifice. A tear rolled down her cheek.
Mulan returned to the stone bench, and wrapped herself in her blanket.
She noticed that another spring had passed. The pink flowers from the magnolia tree drifted down again, and floated in the pond. Mulan sat, as she did every afternoon during her recovery--with the flowers settling all around her. And she would look forward to Shang's next visit. And the next. She was very much in love with him now.
Mulan felt thankful.
She was thankful for her father, her mother, her grandma, the boastful King of the Rock Yao, and the gentle giant Chien-Po.
She was thankful for clumsy Ling, who had finally found his "Girl Worth Fighting For" in the persona of Liu. For Liu, the best friend she had always wished for.
Mulan thought of Shang. She had always been thankful for him.
"I love you, Shang."
And Mulan was especially thankful for that little lizard who came to protect her, and who, in his final selfless act, gave his life for her.
Thanks to Mushu, thanks to the Ancestors, Mulan was alive to share more times with Shang. And with Baba. And with Mama. And with everyone she loved.
Mulan looked back on her life, and realized that she really could do things right after all. And she now knew that people noticed this. She knew she was loved.
Cri-Kee cooed and cuddled in the blanket.
Mulan petted Little Brother at her side. The afternoon sun radiated warmly on her.
And her reflection in the pond smiled back at her.