Chapter 1: Part One
A princess does not take off on her own at dusk with no regard for propriety or her parents. But the way Merida saw it, she'd had no choice. No one would have believed at first that the triplets had gone missing, and by the time the castle had been entirely searched, the little devils could have swum across the sea.
And really, it was just as well that Merida was going it alone. She knew the forest better than anyone, and Angus's gait was sure as they made for the thicker patches of trees.
Come on, Merida thought, almost losing patience. "Come on, you wee bothers," she said out loud, and like that, a small blue light appeared, hovering just above the forest floor. The wisps. Merida guided Angus forward eagerly, knowing they would lead her where she needed to go.
As she saw the shadows of the ancient stone circle ahead, Merida let out the breath she hadn't realized she was holding. The boys were so small to be out here alone, especially with their knack for trouble. But as Angus made the clearing, she realized something was wrong. It was too quiet. The wisps were vanishing away, and her brothers weren't here.
"Oh, no, no, no," she groaned. "Don't -" But the last wisp vanished as Merida crossed into the circle, where, despite the quiet, she was not alone. The strangest woman Merida had ever seen looked up and met her eyes, and Merida reached instinctively for her bow.
"Who are you?" she demanded, trying to make sense of the other woman. No, girl. She couldn't be any older than Merida herself, but her long, straight hair was darker than the forest around them. Her dress was fitted oddly, with sleeves that flowed in a way Merida had never seen before, and a strange, twisted sword hanging loosely on her frame. She wore a flower behind one ear that looked unlike any plant in the whole of Scotland. And she smiled back at Merida's fierce scowl almost apologetically.
"Hi! I'm Fa Mulan," she said. "But you can just call me Mulan. Were you looking for some help?"
"I was looking for three little horrors, about as high as your knee," Merida said, loosening the grip on her bow. "You haven't seen them by any chance?"
"I'm afraid not," the other woman said, "but I'll be glad to help you look."
"Oh, so that's why the wisps led me to you, is it?" Merida asked, in a tone of voice that princesses did not use.
"You mean the spirits?" Mulan said, smiling again. "They know I can help. It's mostly what I do these days."
"Fine," Merida said in exasperation, and she swung her bow back up over her shoulder. "If you can help me find my brothers, please, it's past dark now and I need to bring them home." As she finished speaking, a will o' the wisp sprang up, right by Mulan's feet.
Mulan nodded. "And these spirits - wisps - they'll lead you to your brothers?"
"They've helped me before," Merida said. "Though sometimes they're more trouble than they're worth," she added, shuddering to remember Mor'du's eyes in the darkness of the ancient throne room.
"Then I'll come with you," Mulan said decisively. She gestured at the trail of wisps that had appeared before them, now that Merida was abreast of her. "Should we follow the lights?"
"It'll go quicker if you ride with me," Merida found herself saying, and Mulan leapt up behind her onto Angus, as though she hadn't been wearing a long skirt and a longer sword at her side.
Merida still wasn't sure what this other girl was doing here. She seemed earnest enough, but she was also stranger than the entire Dingwall clan put together. "Why are you helping me?" she asked, although a better question might have been why the wisps had brought her to Mulan in the first place.
"I told you. It's what I do these days," Mulan said. "Help people. The spirits tell me where I need to go. I don't always get a clear picture of how I'm supposed to help, but figuring things out is my specialty."
"Are you some kind of fairy godmother then?" Merida wanted to know. "And how come I've never heard of you before?"
"Fairy godmother?" Mulan laughed. "No. I'm an ancestor. Where I come from, after we pass on, we usually hang around, looking to help our descendants. But it gets pretty boring when your descendants don't need to go save the country or something. So I'm not in the temple too much these days. I sort of go where I'm needed. This is my first trip to Scotland though. It's nice."
A princess almost certainly didn't drop her jaw on hearing those words, but Merida was in front and it was dark outside. She remembered her manners after a moment though. "Your first trip here, really?" she asked, knowing her surprise was still evident in her voice. "You speak the language perfectly."
"Thanks," Mulan answered. "It's a perk of the job. It's surprising though, how many things are the same across the world... Like witches." She stiffened as she spoke, and Merida got the impression that witches might not have just been a random example.
"Oh, yeah, we have one of those," she said, jerking her head over her right shoulder to indicate the location of the Crafty Carver's cottage. "She calls herself a woodcarver, and she has this weird obsession with bears. We've got a load of her stuff hanging out at the castle actually."
"Not that kind of witch," Mulan answered, and Merida felt a chill run up her spine. "The wisps. They're leading us to a witch. I guarantee it. She has your brothers."
"What? Is she going to hurt them?" Merida asked, reaching for her bow, but Mulan's hand stopped her.
"Shhh," she whispered. "Up ahead. Now listen to me, I know it may be your gut instinct to run in there shooting arrows, but that's not what we need to do here. We need to assess the situation diplomatically and make sure she won't magically blast us to pieces before we can resolve things."
"Oh, now you sound like my mother," Merida hissed, still ready to fight tooth and nail for those little pains who managed to wander this deep into the forest and get themselves caught by a less than friendly witch.
"Your mother must be a very smart woman," Mulan answered. "Shhh, see, the wisps are disappearing."
Up ahead, a clearing in the woods revealed a small cottage, just visible by the starlight where the trees had thinned and been uprooted. But while the woodcarver's cottage was built into a hill, covered in moss, this one was covered in...
"Is that custard?" Merida gaped. "And dates?"
"Gingerbread," Mulan said, making it sound like an oath. "It's one of those witches."
Chapter 2: Part Two
"One of those witches?" Merida repeated. "What's that supposed to mean?" She twisted to glare at Mulan, but all she could make out were the other girl's eyes.
"It could go one of two ways," Mulan said. "Listen, do you trust me with your bow? It'll be better if you're unarmed. I'll cover you."
Merida trusted absolutely no one with her bow. "Cover me while I do what, exactly?" she asked.
"Go up and knock on the door," Mulan said. "And your hand might come away covered in sticky sweets, but don't lick it off. Just trust me. Ask politely if the witch has seen your brothers, and offer to pay her a reward."
"And what if something goes wrong?" Merida demanded. "What if she's hurt my brothers?"
"I trained with the Imperial army of China and foiled an invasion and a kidnapping attempt on our Emperor," Mulan answered. "I can handle one witch."
"You'd better be right," Merida growled. She dismounted and approached the cottage on foot, realizing as she drew nearer that Mulan was right. It was definitely made of gingerbread, which seemed pretty impractical for a dwelling in the middle of the forest, if anyone had asked her.
The sweet smell was almost overpowering as Merida came to the door, and she could see why the triplets would have been attracted to it. Sure enough, the little trim around the door - shortbread, a nice touch - had been almost completely eaten away, and Merida had a feeling that she knew exactly which little horrors were to blame for that.
She wanted to grab her bow, fling the gingerbread door open by its sugared plum handle and start firing. But she remembered Mulan's and her mother's advice, raised her hand, and rapped on the door instead. Sure enough, it was sticky.
A sound of furious scuffling came from inside the cottage, and Merida could feel her body responding, her heart in her throat, muscles tensed and ready for anything. Then the door swung open and she was completely bowled over by two small forms tackling her.
"Harris? Hubert? For the love of heaven, are you alright? Where's Hamish?" Merida asked. Mulan appeared beside her suddenly from the shadows, and two small fingers pointed inside.
The gingerbread cottage was in shambles. Everywhere gouges had been made in the walls, and the boys had clearly been moving and jumping on the furniture to get at their favorite bits of sweets. Cookie crumbs littered the floor. And in the back of the cottage, Hamish stood pushing at the door of a great stone oven, clearly exerting all his strength to keep it closed.
"We'll, that's a twist," Mulan observed wryly, and Merida rushed to her smallest brother. "Hamish! Is there a witch in there?" she demanded.
Three accomplished little faces beamed up at her.
"Oh, for the love of - There 's no fire on under it, is there?" What would Mum say? Merida reached out a hand to feel the stones, but they were thankfully cool to the touch.
"You'll want this," Mulan advised, and Merida caught her bow easily, then turned to the boys.
"All right, you miscreants, I'll deal with you later," she threatened, taking in their sticky, grimy fingers and utter lack of remorse for sneaking off to a witch's cottage to begin with. "Now get back, we're going to open the door."
The triplets took one small step back in unison, clearly not wanting to miss the show.
“Further back,” Merida said, motioning, and they inched away. “Fine, good enough.” She whipped open the oven door, not sure what to expect.
A small old woman, trussed up in what looked like several pairs of long underwear, turned to face her balefully.
Merida dropped her bow and immediately began helping the woman out, Mulan at her side. They removed the cheesecloth from where it had been stuffed in her mouth first, and the witch chose to work her jaws rather than scream or cast a curse in retaliation. Then Merida was surprised to see Mulan was just as good with knots as she was herself, and they had the woman’s arms and legs untied within a reasonable amount of time, if not exactly quickly, given the skill and abandon with which the triplets had subdued her.
“I am so sorry about that,” Merida said finally, as she helped to stand the witch upright and get her to a chair.
“You should be,” she sniffed. “All I did was ask if they wanted a plate of cookies. I’m not the kind who goes around eating children, you know. First they damage my home, then they shut me in the oven - they ought to be locked up until they’re of age!”
“Do you mind if we look behind your oven?” Mulan asked, and she was no longer the friendly, smiling girl she had been to Merida. “We’d like to check that for ourselves.”
“Go right ahead, dearie, but you’re digging up the wrong coffin here,” the witch said, waving dismissively. Mulan made quick work of examining every inch of the kitchen, paying special attention to the spaces behind and under the oven and the slightly crusty dishes.
“What are you looking for?” Merida asked.
“You don’t want to know,” Mulan answered, and Merida frowned.
“I do,” she protested. “Even if it’s disgusting.”
“Fine. I’m making absolutely sure she’s not the type to eat children.” Mulan straightened. “Usually they don’t send me out for something that’s not life-threatening, but it looks like she’s clean.”
“I never ate a child in my life. No red meat for years, actually,” the witch said haughtily. She smiled for the first time, and they noticed her five remaining teeth. “Too much candy, the doctor says, but I just can’t stay away. It’s an occupational hazard. I’m a baker, you see. The Cheery Chef, they call me.” She didn't look very cheery, especially when smiling, but Merida was not going to argue the point.
Merida sighed. “Then, again, I must offer my sincerest apologies on behalf of my brothers. Trust me, it’s nothing personal. They’d do it to anyone except maybe my mum if they got the chance.”
“And are they going to stay and repair my cottage?” the witch asked. “They’ve done a terrible amount of property damage. Someone ought to work them hard until it’s all repaired.” The thought seemed to please her.
“I’m not sure they would be much good, and it’s gotten way past their bedtimes, and they’re all hyped up on sugar as it is,” Merida said doubtfully, looking around her for younger brothers. She saw them piled on top of one another on a tabletop that looked like it had been made of spun sugar. Had been made, until recently.
“How long would it take you to fix it?” Mulan asked, looking the witch straight in the eyes.
The witch fell back into her glower. “I could use magic, yes,” she admitted, “but then where would the lesson be for these boys?”
“In the stomach ache and the bawling out they have coming to them?” Merida suggested. “Trust me, my mum will not be pleased about it. They get away with everything, but this is ridiculous.” She turned to her brothers. “Princes do not tie old women up and shove them into ovens, even if they are witches!”
“Bakers!” the old woman corrected. The triplets looked unimpressed.
“All right, you horrors, we’re leaving,” Merida said firmly. She took the small pouch she kept on her person ever since her run-in with the woodcarving witch, and handed over a solid gold falcon talisman the MacGuffins had left behind by accident. “I hope this will cover the trouble, and I’m sorry, again. They won’t be out again unsupervised for a long time now.”
The witch took the falcon, bit it and shrugged. “I’ll be putting up some protection against them this evening,” she said. “Pots and pans!” she added, when Merida looked like she knew exactly what sort of spellwork would be going on. “To let me know if anyone tries to sneak up on me.”
“They’re far too smart to fall for that,” Merida told her, “but good luck anyway.” She realized with the familiar pit in her stomach that it was, once again, far too quiet, and ran outside the cottage, half expecting to see her brothers vanished and the chase beginning again. Instead, Mulan had them all bundled up and sitting on Angus, heads drooping.
“My goodness, you are magic,” Merida whispered, and Mulan smiled.
“Thanks,” she said. “It does come in handy. Are we very far from the castle?”
“Not too far,” Merida said. “Not for a night like this.” The air was crisp but not too cold, and the ground was steady.
“I’ll see you back to the castle, then I’ll go,” Mulan said, and Merida frowned. “Wait, really? You won’t stay the night? See the sights? I can show you the Fire Falls tomorrow!”
“I have a job to do,” Mulan said. “It all turned out well this time, but it’s not always this easy, and people need me.”
“So you’ll really just go? Like that? Have an adventure?” Merida asked, and let out an enormous sigh of envy.
“It’s better than hanging around in a temple all day,” Mulan said, from where she was walking on Angus’s other side, and Merida couldn’t agree more with that.
“Will you take me with you?” she asked. “Just for one adventure? Please?”
"I don't think I can do that," Mulan said doubtfully, but Merida was an expert at seeing when the answer was not an outright no and wheedling her way into a yes.
"Oh, come on, please! Helping people is so much more important than swimming the Fire Falls. And it's no fun sitting around a castle all day either!"
Mulan made a face. “You’re not really supposed to come while you’re… still alive, you know,” she said. “Most of the time they want you to live your own life first, have some of your own adventures…”
“But I’ve done that!” Merida insisted. “I broke the royal engagement tradition for my kingdom, and turned my mother into a bear and changed her back, and my brothers too!”
Mulan stopped in her tracks, genuinely startled. “You turned your mother into a bear?”
“And my brothers. And I rode on her back when I was getting away from another bear,” Merida said. “See? I’m ready.”
“I can’t let you get hurt,” Mulan said. “And what would your parents think?”
“They’ll be fine! I’ll leave a note,” Merida said dismissively. “Besides, they didn’t even notice my brothers were gone, did they? And you said usually you go to places more exciting than this? More important. So what if you weren't supposed to rescue my brothers? What if you were supposed to find me instead? So I could help you."
Merida could tell from the way Mulan's head turned that she was considering the possibility. "One adventure. Just one. Please?”
“One,” Mulan said, smiling, and Merida couldn’t contain her glee without jumping into the air and nearly kicking Angus.
“Oh, thank you, Mulan!” she exclaimed, then ran in front of the horse to throw her arms impulsively around Mulan’s neck. “I know we’re going to have an amazing time.”
“You know, I think it is going to be fun,” Mulan agreed, and she smiled. The wisps appeared once more, pointing the way forward from where they stood.
“You’ll have to tell me a little more about yourself too, you know,” Merida said. “The bit about the invasion and kidnapping sounded good.”
“Oh, that was a long time ago,” Mulan said. “But before I came here, I was in Germany.”
“And let me tell you, if you think these woods can be scary, they’ve got nothing on some of those woods,” Mulan continued. “It’s not always easy to help people.”
“I’m up the the challenge,” Merida said.
“I know you are,” Mulan agreed. “And I can’t wait to see you shoot.”
“It’s a thing of beauty,” Merida admitted. “You’ll see it soon enough.” She looked up. Ahead in the distance, the castle towers signalled the familiarity of home. But right now, Merida was ready for something much less familiar, and she was pretty sure Mulan would provide her with exactly what she was looking for.