The day’s travel had been calm, except for the wild boar which sent them all up trees, which had allowed Mulan the day to organize her thoughts and think of how to improve the story. To make it more of a tale rather than a simple exchange of information.
Once the camp was made and the stew was cooking, Kip, the youngest Merryman, brought Mulan a steaming cup of tea and a tankard of water without her even having to ask. She laughed at his expectant and hopeful face (his wasn’t the only one) and took a seat on a rock so that her audience had to look up a bit to watch her.
“I spent another week at my Father’s school,” she began once everyone was settled and Tuck gave her a nod. “It was summer and I remember the cicadas buzzing their song in the humid heat. The villagers set to making their village a place for the living and I wandered the school, sometimes meditating and sometimes practicing my fighting forms. To be honest, I didn’t know what to do. The villagers refused any offer of help and, to be honest, avoided me. We danced with awkward steps, neither of us really knowing what to do. I, lost in my grief and they, lost in...perhaps is was a shame of sorts, the shame that they lived while my family was dead. I didn’t truly know. They did bring me food and saw to my physical needs but would leave as soon as what was required was done.
“As for myself, I felt adrift and it was more than the grief. I knew I could return to the Emperor’s army but how could I serve any ruler who had let this devastation occur? I could stay at the school but to what purpose? I was no farmer. My only skills lay with fighting. Certainly, I could learn, or relearn the skill, for my Mother made every student work the farm at our school, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to live in the place with the spirits of my family so fresh.
“With nothing else to do, I read the book and scroll I had found. The book was a work of my Father and Mother’s philosophy of fighting and war; and I wept at the folly of it. The scroll, however, told of how certain parts of dragons, their scales or whiskers…”
“Hold on,” John interrupted. “Dragons don’t have whiskers.”
Mulan raised an eyebrow and asked, “Truly? You seem very certain. How many dragons have you fought or seen?”
“None,” John admitted with a grumble which made everyone laugh. “But everyone knows, don’t they?”
“Perhaps it is the dragons in my land that have whiskers then and not the ones in the lands here? Either way, I know of at least one dragon that has, or had whiskers.”
This statement is met with gasps and Kip asked, in an amazed voice,, “You mean, you fought a dragon?!?!” to which Little John scoffed.
“There ain’t no way…” He started to say before Mulan interrupted him.
“Perhaps if I could finish my story you will find out?” They quieted, so she continued. “The scroll also talked of how warriors used to seek out dragons as a final test of their prowess and skills. I decided to attempt this myself since I had little else to do and to prove my parents teaching had some merit. I packed provisions, dressed myself in my Father’s armor, took a training sword, a few staves, the book and the scroll, and set off.
“Behind me, in the courtyard of my parent’s school, I left the armor and sword the Emperor had given me with a note which read, ‘A ruler who sacrifices his people for fortune and glory, deserves neither and I cannot serve such a one with honor.’ I was sure to sign my name so that all all would know who wrote it. I was tempted to break the sword as well but I hoped it might serve another warrior as it had served me.
“As I walked through the village, the people stopped and stared as I passed. At the edge of town, the mayor approached and offered me the reigns to a beautiful horse. Though not a war horse, it was perfect for traveling, sleek and strong. Mounting, I turned the horse about to face the villagers and offered them a bow with a palmed fist. I bade them remember those who died that they may live and to give their sacrifice honor. I turned the horse back to the road and as I left, all I heard were the cicadas.”
“As I traveled, I listened for word of a dragon. I knew from the scroll that they preferred mountains or sometimes lakes or the sea. Since I was closer to mountains, I decided to try there first. Summer grew, spreading it's warmth, and everywhere I road I saw signs of the Ogre War and always it was farms and villages where the most damage was done. I came across several bands of bandits in my travels as well. I slew those I had to but more often than not, my Mother’s belief, that justice did not take hands, proved true. The bandits were more often farmers or herdsmen who had lost their lands or beasts and so felt they had no other choice. These I allowed to travel with me until we found a village in need to more hands, where they would stay and I would move on.
“Sounds a lot like Robin,” Tuck said, bringing bowls of stew to hand about, and many nodded in agreement.
“Summer’s heat turned to Autumn’s storms and still I wandered, near lakes and in mountains, yet no word of a dragon did I find. Then came Winter’s bite and I heard my first rumor. It took a few more weeks until I found the right mountain and then another to find the beast’s cave but find him I finally did. I spent a night preparing. I left my horse with the village down the slope, as well as most of my possessions. Into the cave I took nothing but a staff and my armor.”
“Hold on, hold on,” John exclaimed as he jumped to his feet. “You expect us to believe a slip of a girl like you not only fought a dragon but fought one with nothing but a staff?” Tuck tried to pull Little John back down but he shook him off.
Mulan came to her feet calmly and replied, “Woman.”
“I am a woman, not a girl. And a sword would have been pointless, for nothing but the most strongly enchanted sword would pierce a dragon’s scales, while a staff is more than a weapon. It can be a tool as well.”
“Still, come on!”
“If you wish a demonstration of my fighting skill instead of a story, I can indulge you,” Mulan said icily. “You have stretched credulity with many of your own stories, why can you not give me the same courtesy? At least until the end of my story?”
“She’s got you there John.” “Yeah, leave off.” “Let her finish!”
“Oh fine, if only to shut you lot up,” John grumbled and retook his seat.
Mulan paused a moment longer to be sure he would keep quiet and returned to her story. “I approached the cave carefully. There were many signs of the dragon; great gouges in the rocks from its claws and scorch marks from the fire of its breath. I could even hear its breathing, deep and rhythmic but the caves were nearly a labyrinth so I had no idea where the beast was. The cave was musty and hot as well, making breathing difficult. It also kept getting darker and darker. I would have brought a torch but needed both my hands for my staff.
“I am not sure how long I searched in the dark. It seemed like perhaps hours, when the dragon rushed at me out of the dark. I used the staff as a level and pushed myself out of its path. It surged past me and turned. I stood my ground, ready to attack or defend. It charged again, I dodged. It attacked with a claw, I used to staff to deflect it, even striking a blow between its claws.
“A word of advice, in case you ever find yourself facing a dragon, the space between its claws is somewhat vulnerable; much like the space between our fingers.
“Still, all I seemed able to do it annoy it. I could tell I was fighting a stand still. Whether the dragon was playing with me or I truly was skilled enough to hold it at bay, I would tire and then it would have me. I studied its serpentine body, the mane, the whiskers, how it moved, anything to find an advantage but nothing revealed itself to me. Then I remembered something my Father was fond of saying, ‘In all things, focus on the goal not the battle.’
“I looked again at the whiskers and realized they were long enough, I could grab one. If I could do that and run, I could have my whisker. I didn’t need to kill the beast which I will be honest, made me glad for the beast was beautiful
“I continued to fight as I had, slowing making my way closer, until, as the dragon was turning to make another attack, I ran forward and using the staff to push me farther into the air, I grabbed the whisker. I had it in my hands but it held in place. I despaired, my gamble proved false but then it pulled free and I fell to the ground.
I landed poorly but was able to stand and regain my feet to run when the dragon spoke. ‘That was nicely done!’
“I froze, startled and not sure what to do now. The dragon lowered its head to look at me closer, ‘Beautiful strategy. How did you think of it?’
‘I just realized I didn’t have to beat you to get what I wished. I didn’t have to kill you or even fight you if I could get a whisker and escape’ I said, still shocked that the dragon spoke. I had heard stories, of course, but they were old.
‘I see. Yes. Very wise. So what are you going to make with my whisker? Armor to make you invulnerable? A weapon to carve an Empire?’
‘No,’ I replied. ‘I mean, I already have armor and I would not trade it for any other. And I have no wish to rule an Empire, I am not greedy enough nor wise enough to rule.’
‘I do not know about not wise enough. It is said those who desire power least, deserve it most.’
‘Perhaps,’ I said, not wishing to insult the dragon. ‘I will make a sword, to defend though not to conquer.’
‘Excellent! Let me aid you. I have much experience with forging, especially with dragon scales and whiskers.’
“So I stayed with the dragon for the winter and he and I forged my sword. We also talked of many things. I told him of my parents school and he told me of the dragon courts. But that is a story for another day. But now you know how I got my sword and of myself and how I learned to fight, so all of your questions have answers.”