Once upon a time, there was small child who lived in a small village in China. He lived with his grandfather in a small house on the edge of town. They did not have much, but the boy’s grandfather always taught him to share what he had with those who had less than he did.
One day, a strange woman in tattered, old-fashioned clothes and a bandage wound all the way up her arm came through the village. She went from house to house, asking for food, but no one would give her anything. She was just about to leave the village, when the little boy came up to her and tugged on her sleeve.
“Lady,” he said, “you can come with me if you want.”
The woman looked at his worn clothes. “You don’t have to do that, child,” she said. “You have little enough as it is.”
The child shook his head. “My grandfather says always to offer whatever we have. We have a warm house and a little food, and you’re welcome to stay the night with us.”
The woman looked at him for a long moment. “If you’re sure he won’t mind.”
That night, a deep snow fell, but the three were warm and safe inside the small house. The strange woman regaled them with tales of long-ago times and faraway places and great battles and mythical creatures.
“There were only a few of us there,” said the woman. “And a great hoard of enemies, all coming down the snowy mountainside. There were far too few of us to stop them, and we only had one racket left.”
“What did you do?” said the boy.
The woman smiled and looked distant.
“I took the rocket,” she said, “and fired it, not at our enemies, but at the mountain above it. I woke the sleeping snow, and the mountain itself roared in rage as the avalanche swept our enemies away.”
“You didn’t really fight in that war, did you?” asked the child. “That was so long ago!”
The woman reached under the ragged coat she was still wearing and pulled out a wrapped sword. “This was my father’s sword,” she said. “I fought in the war against the huns. I fought against Shan Yu himself, and won.”
“Was that when you hurt your arm?” asked the boy, pointing at the bandages.
“Don’t point, child,” said the grandfather, but the woman only smiled.
“No,” she said. “Do you want to hear about the time my ancestors sent a dragon to help me fight in the war?”
They kept talking long into the night as the wind howled around them, and none of them heard when the howls turned to howls of bloodlust.
The attack came the next day.
The villagers were ill prepared, and only a few had swords of bows, leaving most with nothing but knives or staves as the attackers poured down from the hill toward the gates of the village.
The few villagers who had managed to arm themselves stood at the gate as the attackers came, but before they could fight, the strange woman pushed through them and stood in front of them.
“Leave this place,” she called, and her voice rolled like thunder over the snow.
The leader of the attackers pulled up short in front of her, and then laughed.
“Leave?” he mocked. “Why should we leave? Because a ragged drifter-woman told us to?”
The stranger looked at them grimly.
“This place is under my protection.”
The leader laughed, long and loud. “Your protection?” he mocked. “Then let us see what your protection is worth. Men! To arms!”
There was a sound like the harsh twanging of a hundred stringed instruments, and then arrows rained down on the village like hail.
An arrow hit the woman in the thigh, but she didn’t even flinch. She spun around three times, whispering as she did, ignoring the other arrows that pierced her skin.
She threw off her ragged cloak, brandishing her bloodstained sword in her right arm, while the concealing bandages fell away from her left. On her bare left arm, from shoulder to palm, twisted a red and gold tattoo of a dragon.
“Let us see what my protection is worth indeed,” she said, and her voice twisted and echoed around itself as her eyes started to glow an empty white.
The fiery colors curled and writhed around her arm, and then with a roar, the dragon burst from her skin.
The hail of arrows halted as the attacking hoard turned and fled in terror, and the dragon followed them with a great bellow, eyes glowing the same empty white as its master’s.
The woman stepped forward to follow them, but paused and turned back for a moment.
“Remember well what your grandfather taught you, child,” she said, voice still strange, “for not all strangers are what they seem.”
With that, she turned and bounded away, faster than any human should have been able to move.
“And that, child, is why you should always respect strangers.”
“But that didn’t really happen, did it, grandfather?”
The grandfather who had once been a poor child smiled fondly at her.
“Here,” he said, and pulled out something wrapped in a cloth and carefully unwrapped it. In his hands, he held a twisted arrow.
“I kept this,” he told his granddaughter. “I picked it up that day, because I knew I would never see her again. But perhaps one day you will meet a strange woman in rags, traveling alone—and when you do, be kind to her. For she may be an ancient soul who cannot die, doomed to walk the earth with no one but the dragon wrapped around her arm for company. She was already ancient when I knew her, and perhaps one day she will come to you as well.”
He smiled at his granddaughter’s skeptical face.
“But even if she does not, be kind. Be kind to all strangers, for you never know what tales they may carry hidden with them, if only you will listen.”
The little girl wrinkled her nose. “All right,” she said finally.
“That’s my girl,” said the grandfather, and helped her off his lap. “Now your grandfather has to do a few things right now, so you run off and play for a little while. I’ll tell you another story later, if you like.”
The girl smiled suddenly. “I’ll go tell this story to my friends!” she said decisively, and ran off out the door.
The grandfather smiled fondly after her as he wrapped the arrow back up. “That’s right,” he said softly. “Remember the stories, my little Mulan.”