It should have surprised Mulan that saving China from the Huns was easier than living at home with her family and new husband. Sadly, it didn't.
"Mulan," her mother yelled, and Mulan flinched at the sound. She knew that she was going to get bawled out for not washing the clothes properly, or clearing the tea things into their correct drawers or some other minute detail that shouldn't matter, but apparently did. She ducked into the barn, and grinned sheepishly when Khan gave her a knowing look from his stall. She wasn't certain how a horse, even one that had been through so much with her, could understand that she was hiding from her mother and grandmother, but he whinnied and she could swear it sounded like he was laughing at her.
"Oh, be quiet," she said. She took a brush down from one of the hooks and stepped into his stall. He father used to tell her that as long as she was spending her time in the barn, she might as well make herself useful there. So, maybe she was hiding like a child, but at least she was old enough to take care of her horse while she did so. Khan stamped his feet, but seemed to settle down after a few minutes of quiet brushing.
She could hear her mother's voice still. Fa Li had graduated from just calling Mulan's personal name, to her full name, to 'Hero of China, Fa Mulan', and Mulan was pretty sure sure it would only get worse from there. She took several slow, calming breaths, trying to get herself centered enough that she could face her mother with at least as much presence of mind as she'd had when facing marauding Huns, put away the brush, and stepped outside. She was heading towards the main house when some cleared their throat. Mulan whirled, hand on the knife she kept stuck through her sash.
Standing about halfway between the compound's entry gate and the barn, a young man stood. He looked at her, and then away, giving the impression that he would love to be anywhere but where he was. He looked familiar-- one of the servants' sons, she thought, although not one that normally came into the compound itself. Probably one of her relatives had conscripted him to look for her. "If my grandmother sent you to fetch me, you can tell her I'll be there when I'm ready," Mulan said, pleased that she didn't sound as snappish as she felt. The way the boy hunched up made her rethink that assessment. She offered as much of a smile as she could muster under the circumstances. "Sorry," she said. "I really was coming, though."
"Are you really the Hero of China?" the boy asked. His eyes were wide and bright, and his brow was furrowed. Mulan lifted an eyebrow at the sudden question. The boy hesitated, looking her up and down. It was a familiar look, albeit one that she'd stopped getting from her family and most of the villagers after about a month of her return home. It was the look that tried to read her skill in the set of her shoulders and the muscles that were hidden under several layers of fabric. The look was soon joined by an expression that was almost as common-- the one that said 'you are not nearly as manly or ugly as I thought you'd be'. "You're Fa Mulan, right?"
Mulan nodded and twisted her fingers in her sleeve to keep from running them through her hair self-consciously. "That's what they call me."
"I was supposed to come for Li Shang. I'm Yu Cheng-Gong, and I was given a message from the farmer's council." He held up a scroll to punctuate his point. "They were hoping he could go out and do something about the bandits that have been stealing livestock the village. But maybe you can take it to him. Or," he said, giving her that long once-over again, "t-take care of it, maybe?" She met the boy's eyes and he tipped his head down, a conspiratorial smile creeping across his face. "
They knew she was just as good a fighter, and she was a native of the village. She knew the fields and hills around the village like the back of her hand, but they were going to go to Shang instead? Irritation tickled the back of her mind, but she ignored it in favor of the offered escape from her mother. "I'll take care of it. That is, I'll make sure Shang gets it." You let them know you delivered it to the right person." She returned his smile and he bowed, then hurried off.
Mulan opened the scroll, skimming over the obsequious request that the great Master Li please do something about the ferocious and terrible bandits that plagued the humble and kind farmers of their unworthy village. She made a sound low in her throat. She knew most of the farmers whose seals were on the letter, and she closed her eyes, trying to plot out where the farms where. The bandits had to be holed up somewhere nearby, close enough that they could get in and out without being noticed too much, but where they could keep the stolen livestock until they sold it. Because she had her eyes closed, she didn't notice her mother sneaking up behind her until Fa Li yelled her name right into her ear.
It took her weeks to track the bandits down. She spent her days, when she could sneak away from the inevitable chores and lectures about her failings as a woman, checking up on the farms that had been raided. She told the farmers that her husband had sent her, swallowing the bile that the words produced, and smiling prettily, with one hand on her sword belt. No one gave her much of a hard time, and many of the wives grinned in a way that made her think that they knew she was on no errand from Shang.
She climbed every mountain in the area, looking for hidden caves and fields. Khan wasn't very happy about the workout, and her mother even less so about the time she was spending away from the house, but after a week or so, the complaints began to taper off somewhat from both sides. Mulan was grateful, because tracking the bandits was proving to be more difficult than she had expected it would be. After finding a new cave every time she trekked over the same hill, she decided it was probably a good idea she'd decided to take this job instead of letting Shang do it. If she, who'd lived their her entire life, was having that much trouble, how much worse would it be for a newcomer to discover all the little nooks and crannies someone could hide away a few cattle?
The worst part of the hunt, though, was convincing the guards to be on standby for her signal. "Are you sure you know what you're doing? Shouldn't you wait for your husband?" they asked, over and over until she wanted to scream and tear her hair. She wished that she could hide behind Ping's name again, make them listen to her as a soldier, not a woman. Thankfully, despite the suggestions and the doubts, no one went to get Shang, and they agreed to watch for the the small firework she'd tucked into her pouch to serve as a flare.
Mulan patted her pocket to make sure that the flare was still there, dismounted Khan and stepped around the small hillock. She knew in her gut that the bandits had to be somewhere nearby, but she couldn't call the guards until she actually found them.
"Who's there?" a rough voice asked from above. She looked up--silhouetted by the sun was a broad man with a craggy face. He wore coarse clothes and the light gleamed off a large knife at his belt.
"Fa Mulan. I'm here to arrest you," she said. The man laughed. It made the hairs on the back of her neck prickle, and her arms tense.
"You, girly? You can try. We'll just give you a good spanking and maybe we'll let you run home. Maybe we will." He sneered at her in a way that made her feel distinctly uncomfortable. She let her hand drop to her sword hilt as one by one bandits began to step out from behind the crag that she'd finally located as their hiding place. Three, four, five of them. There must be another couple tending to the stolen livestock, at least. She backed up, trying to draw them away from the hidden hide out. The further out of cover they were, the easier it would be for the guards to locate them all. The bandits must have taken the movement as a frightened retreat, though, and they advanced, beginning to smile. "You think you can use that toothpick, girly?" their scout asked. His friends chuckled.
Mulan drew her sword and began to back up a little bit more. They weren't actually far from some farms. In fact, she decided, the farm fields would probably be the best place to call the guards from. Open, exposed, hard to get back to cover. She nodded to herself and gave the bandits a winsome smile. "I can more than use it. I'm Fa Mulan, Hero of China." She lunged, then, slicing at the foremost bandit. It cut a long, shallow bite into his upper arm and he howled in anger and pain. She'd intended for it to be a shallow cut, though. All she wanted was to make them angry enough to follow her out of the hills. She dashed a short distance, stopping the fight them off when they got too close, but never enough to kill or really hurt them too badly. Just enough to slow them down. Two of them were better than Mulan had expected, though, putting up an actual fight in a way the others weren't. Former soldiers, she surmised, when one nearly got her across the face and she had to roll to get out of the way in time. But the farm was just ahead and she tried to fumble the flare out of her pocket with one hand, trying to fight off the bandits with the other. She cursed under her breath.
"That's no way for a lady to talk," said the closest bandit.
One of the soldiers feinted, catching her off-guard and making her stumble a bit on the now-grassy ground. "For all the trouble she's giving us, we might as well make sure she ain't no lady," he said.
She kicked out at his feet, connecting solidly with his shin and pulled herself back to her feet. With her free hand, she fired the flare and Ran towards the farm's fence as though terrified. As she'd expected, the bandits barely noticed the small firework, and ran after her. She vaulted the fence, aiming to run for the flat empty plain where they'd be easy to see. She tried to vault the fence, anyone. One of the bandits grabbed at her sash and she tripped, her jump landing badly. pain shot up her leg and she swore again, falling to one knee. She barely managed to get her sword up in time to catch one of the knives before it hit her shoulder.
After that it was a blur of steel and pain as she abandoned strategy, tried to ignore her leg and just hold off the bandits until the guards showed up.
It took only a few minutes, but it seemed longer as she stared into those leering faces. Still, she got her hits in, and by the time the guards arrived, yelling and swinging their own swords, all five of the bandits were bleeding in a satisfying manner.
Once the guards had all of them tied, Mulan sat down heavily, stretching her legs out in front of her. Her ankle was visibly swelling already. "There should be a few more," she said, looking up at the head of the guards. he was giving her a disapproving look, which she chose to ignore. "There's a hill about a hundred bu that way." She pointed in the direction she'd come. "They were holed up in a cave, and there's a hillock that hides a small field where I think they've been hiding the stolen cattle." Mulan sucked in a breath and pulled herself to her feet. "I'll show you where. If we hurry, we can probably catch the bandits who were minding them."
"We can find them ourselves, woman," the lead guard snapped, waving away one of the junior guards who had been about to help her walk.
"Like you found the bandits yourself," Mulan said. "Like you tracked them down to their hideout, without any help, like you ct them down with your own sword and no assistance for a damnable woman." Her lips pulled back in the snarl she'd dammed up inside, and her sword came up to point at his chest. She knew she shouldn't-- never point your sword at anyone you don't intend to kill, Shang had told her once. And anyway, she wasn't exactly steady on ehr feet. But the show had made her point. The guard backed away, a sour look on his face, and he made a gesture at the guard who'd tried to help her. "Thank you," Mulan said and sheathed her sword.
By the time she got home, Mulan's ankle was so swollen she couldn't walk on it, and whichever guards had brought the bandits in had let it slip both that she'd helped capture them and had been injured in the attempt. Happily, they'd retrieved Khan from the hill and she'd ridden most of the way home.
That didn't stop her mother from taking one look at her as the guard helped her dismount and launching directly into a tirade, following along behind Mulan as she navigated back to her room. "You never listen! Why couldn't you stay home and do the work of your mothers instead of making me fret with worry while you go chasing down villains! Do you want to make me worried? Listen to my heart? It will give out if you keep doing this! I thought that you'd gotten all this silly business out of your system when you ran off to go fight the Huns! Fighting the Huns! Instead of making your father tea and raising your husband and, our ancestors forbid, your sons right! On of these days your luck will run out, you know. Where will we all be then? Think of me! Think of your father, he's so weak! And that husband of yours, what will he do if you keep running off like this?"
Mulan just watched her mother wearily, knowing that nothing she could say would stop the flood. Eventually Fa Li would just run out of words and storm off.
Finally her mother left, shutting the door loudly, and leaving Mulan in blessed peace as she went off to some other part of the house to rant at some other poor fool for a while. A few minutes later, though, the door opened again. Mulan slumped, waiting for her grandmothers sharp tones, or her father's resigned sighs.
"Bandits, huh?" Mulan looked up into the amused face of her husband, and felt her tension ease. She knew that, for the moment at least, she was with someone who would understand.