The Wood Orchid
Chapter 3: The Journey
A cold, forceful wind seemed to sneak through their heavy traveling cloaks as it sadistically forced frigid water droplets to attack their faces even as they attempted to ward off the watery attack by turning their heads down. Their pace was a slow one due to the wind and the rain attempting to keep them from moving forward. They rode side by side. They did not look up, they did not talk, they just rode north, seemingly oblivious to anything besides moving forward. Mulan's appearance was deceivingly calm; yet again she was lost in thought trying to analyze the situation. There wasn't anything else to do while guiding Khan through the mud besides thinking about the events of the day. It had been a long day; one moment she's getting ready to meet the matchmaker to decide her future, the next she's galloping off to the capitol to learn an unknown future. She knew the future husband matchmaker would give her would be a stable and comfortable one, due to the Emperor's blessing bestowed upon her, but it would most likely not contain the love she desired. If her supposed husband was kind to her she would grow to love him of course but it would not be the silent flame that she desired.
Her thoughts then traveled with her eyes to the corners of her eyes where a shadowed man rode a few feet from her with a stoic, frozen face. She wondered why the man who had lead her into battle and a hero of China had not yet been married off to a noble family's beautiful daughter. In fact, besides the little knowledge she had learned about his father during the war, she knew little about his personal life. Why had she ever thought they were friends? He was simply a captain attempting to stay in good relations with the soldier who had assisted him in the gain of his fame and honor. She did not blame him for this, though she could not deny she felt bitter about it. It was not her place to say anything so she would keep up the façade of friendship for his benefit; he deserved at least that much.
When the sun began to disappear on the horizon, they went to the side of the path that snaked through the forest to make camp, a decision silently agreed upon. They had not come across another village since they left her village so there was no where better to settle than under the tall oaks of the looming forest surrounding them. As Mulan leaped down from her horse, mud squished around her feet threatening to enter her boots. She tied Khan down for the night before turning to glance at Shang. Her former captain was still mounted on his steed tight-lipped, with his eyes blankly set towards his hands on the horn of the saddle. As she studied him further, his blue tinted lips and quiet shivering became apparent to her. What had happened to him that caused him to be in this state? Even his mare seemed worse for wear. It then came to her recollection that he had left the night before and not arrived till morning. She had assumed he had found an inn to stay at, though it now seemed that he had ridden the night through maybe stopping here and there for little, if any, rest. She forgot all else and rushed to his side. Later she would argue with herself that the only reason she did that was because he was her superior and it would reflect badly on her and tarnish her honor if they arrived at the capital with him at death's door from sickness.
His shivering only increased as she assisted him down Púrén. The man who had been endowed astounding agility and coordination now stumbled off his horse and temporarily placed all his weight onto Mulan who was not expecting such a weight, thus they found themselves on the ground with him on top of her, their faces only an inch away, straggles of his hair circling her face, rain dripping down from the tip of his nose to hers. Their chests were both contracting and and expanding from the occurrence. Glazed over eyes met and lingered on widened, shocked eyes. He slurred out, "My apologies" before attempting to stand up, but finding he couldn't, he rolled off onto his back beside her. With a flushed face she sprang up to her feet feeling the wind hit the back of her cloak damp from the rain water. She took one breath to calm down from the confusion of what had just occurred before assisting a confused looking man to his feet and walking him over to a tree to sit. She quickly assembled a place for a fire and discovered a few semi-dry branches in the great oak that was protecting them from the worst of the storm. A fire only accomplished after entrusting all training and experience from when she was enlisted. Once she got a solid flame started safely out of the wind, she led the confused Shang over to the fire. She dug through both their saddle bags and found three extra blankets to wrap around him, some green tea, and some sugar cane for him to chew. She may not know how to cook but she certainly knew how to survive. After pulling her cloak tighter she sat down a few inches from the silent, shivering Shang. She started boiling water for brewing tea in the small travel pot every soldier carried. The water was boiling and the long night of looking after a disoriented Shang began.
The first light of sunrise hit her eyes like a blessing from the gods themselves. She had managed to successfully keep Shang from falling asleep in his dangerous condition all night and stay awake herself, though the temptation of sleep did not go unnoticed by her body.
"We must ride hard to the next village for an inn to rest a night. We are still two days ride from the capital. The nearest village is half a day's journey. The emperor will allow us to be half a day late given the situation."
Her eyes turned to see his face as he spoke, his eyes turned lightly toward her, his chin hinting upwards in an almost defiant manner. His eyes were more lucid than the previous night yet they now carried bags under them to indicate his fatigue. She was sure her eyes also were shadowed with fatigue and she could barely stop them from closing them altogether. She simply nodded at his comment before gathering her things just as he began to. "What? No thank you?" she complained silently in her head.
They left no trace that they had been there as they left the campsite, a practice second nature to both. They still rode in silence but this time it was almost a more comfortable silence. They had reverted back to their comradeship. She did not mind this change, it was comfortable and familiar. He was the captain and she was the soldier following him.
The path in front of them was a fairly well traveled road so it was relatively clear. The winter had frozen the plants from growing over the path. Now that spring was approaching, merchants and travelers would be treading down the road toward their destination crunching over frozen ground to bring sound and life back to the quiet forest. Mulan looked around at the trees sparkling with rain water. The ground was beginning to reveal green plants reaching up towards the sky for light and air, attempting to prove their worth in the world. She could imagine the bare, brown-black trees colorfully decorated by spring with green leaves and colorful fruits and flower; the ground full of lively green grass that tempted everyone with a warm afternoon nap.
She could see a traveling family, little children, running along the path, laughing and playing, chsing rabbits, hiding in bushes, never going far from the path do that the unknowns of the forest wouldn't capture them. She could see a young boy running though the trees stopping & turning back to look at her. His bright face contained his father's strong chin and his mother's soft cheeks, but his eyes were all his own. Strength and ferocity calmed by sincerity and kindness could be seen behind the mischievous glow of his eyes. He gave her a gentler smile before running off again, laughing.
Her vision died away and the echo of laughter in her head faded and the lush green life transformed back into the hard, cold forest, The soft smile on her lips remained as she re-lived the vision in her mind, warmth combating the encroaching cold. In the corner of her eye she sensed something. When she turned her head, Shang was looking at her with a smirk on his face and he flicked his eyes suggestively in front of the horses. She followed his gaze. There was a large encircled meadow in front of them before the barrage of trees began again in about one-quarter mile. The noon-sn above flaunted the meadows early vitality. Grass was already covering the ground making one almost forget about the biting cold surrounding them.
She turned back and grinned at him understandingly before kicking Khan into a gallop. Shang quickly followed, kicking Púrén into a gallop also. The sound of hooves hitting the hardened winter ground filled the meadow as white and black blurs raced across the meadow toward the other side. The race was even the whole way until the end when Khan edged out ahead at the last second to take the lead. He came to a stop at the tree line when Púrén paused right next to him. All four were breathing heavily, Shang more so still recovering from his sickness. Shang and Mulan grinned at each other their eyes locked on each others in the pure reckless joy of the moment. Mulan laughed and followed Shang as he started toward the path once more, back to business as usual, though a lighter feeling was in the air. They started again on their path in a happier mood.
"I win again! This seems to happen a lot. I'm starting to believe you're letting me win on purpose."
"I truly wish that was the truth, but I do not think lighting itself could beat your horse."
She teasingly retorted with, "Retreating to excuses I see, my fearless Captain. What's next? Saying the wind slowed you down?"
He was not about to let her win this battle though. "There are many facts about that statement that are false, my dear lady", she grimaced at the teasing title, "For one, is that what I said was not an excuse but a truth. Secondly, is that I am not "Captain" anymore."
She scowled curiously at this. "Why are you not Captain anymore? How can that be?"
He smiled at her like he knew a secret, which essentially he did. "It would be hard to be in two places at once. Trying to fulfill my duties as a captain would get in the way of being the Minor General of Xian…"
This whole time they had been conversing with their eyes on the path watching where their horses tread on the bumpier part of the road while sneaking glances at one another in turn. When he said that though, she pulled Khan to a halt to get a better look at him and say "Since when? That's wonderful! Congratulations!"
"Where's the usual sarcastic comment" he said with a smirk continuing to ride forward.
"Oh, I just thought I'd be nice to a friend for once", she quickly retorted before realizing what she had said. She started back into a walk and turned her head down as quickly as she could.
It was his turn to look at her. "Thank you", he said gently almost seeming to mean more than he said. They remained silent for the rest of the day unless they discussed the journey. Once again in the familiar silence, Mulan lost herself in her thoughts of what the future held for her. Was she going to continue in the army? Was she going to be married away to some unknown man? Or was she to become an old maid, never to be married? These were the thoughts that kept her quiet throughout the day, and she wondered what thoughts were keeping Shang quiet. The sun had almost reached the horizon when Púrén reared back suddenly, almost throwing Shang off. Púrén backed away from whatever had spooked her.
In front of her curled a cobra, its head fanned out to intimidate. It was a big cobra, an old cobra. It hissed at the frightened mare, its tongue flickering in and out, its hood flaring. Shang had just some-what calmed Púrén when Mulan felt Khan shift under her. Before she gathered on what he was doing, he galloped over to the snake defensively standing protectively between it and Púrén. He reared also, Mulan more prepared but still out of control. His hooves came hurtling down onto the snake as it moved to strike at him, its last effort before he was trampled. Mulan immediately looked over to Shang and saw him tending to his distressed horse, attempting to calm it. She turned her head back to her own steed who was breathing heavily. Something wasn't right. His eyes were wide and frozen and he was shivering a little. She dismounted and headed to his front hooves, afraid of what she was pretty sure she'd find. Two streaks of blood ran down his front left leg visible on his white sock, the dead cobra's revenge. She was at a loss for words, she had no idea what to do.
"Sh-Shang? Can y-you come here real quick? Khan's b-been bit."
He looked up from a relatively calmed mare and saw the panic on Mulan's face. He quickly tied the still shaken Púrén to the nearest strong branch before rushing to Mulan's side at Khan's hoof. The horse was rather calm for just being bitten by a deadly snake. Shang quickly examined the bleeding wound, and then went over to where the snake had been pummeled. He lifted up the head and searched the mouth, not satisfied with that, he looked around the area. He almost chuckled.
"There's nothing to worry about. He's injured yes, but thankfully the snake did not bite him. The marks on his leg are too far apart to have been the snakes fangs ."
She was relieved to hear that and to see with her own eyes, he spoke the truth. She felt foolish for not realizing that before he did. "If it wasn't the snake then, what was it?"
"There is bush over here with two sharp, bloody branches. When he must of hurt himself when he came down on the cobra. It'll heal quickly but it's best not to ride him till we arrive at the village where he can recuperate overnight. He and I both need the rest and I suspect you do too after the long night last night." They continued down the path they were taking now walking the horses behind them.
"I was starting to wonder if you had remembered anything from last night; you were rather delusional." She regretted her word choice, but the point was made.
His face contorted in the slightest manner as if it pained him to say the words, "Thank you for your assistance" He was a very proud man.
She let out a short laugh as she watched him lay down his pride to utter out a single thanks. She was about to tease him and attempt to get another glimpse of his rare smile, when Shang paused in his tracks while for the second time that day, he had noticed something before she did. It was the village Shānyáng. It was the last stop before the final leg of their journey to the capital.
Disclaimer: The author does not own the motion picture "Mulan" or any of its characters. This story is written for creative purposes only; there is no monetary benefit.