The night air is crisp and the small party of Merrymen are but a few days ride from Robin as they settle for the night. Their mission was a success, of sorts. They failed to gain the enchanted shovel but did find many bags of good seed grain. Now they sit to eat their dinners and share stories as they often do.
Mulan isn't really paying attention however. Instead she is watching the firelight as it dances; catching glimpses of Aurora's hair or a swirl of her silk gown. That is until a name pulls her back. A name she has not heard spoken of by any of the band but a name she knows, Will Scarlett.
"Who is Will Scarlett?" She asks, not quite sure who had spoken the name.
Little John looks up from his crust of bread and smirks. "Now she speaks. None of your concern littl' miss."
"Please, I would like to hear your story."
John's smirk turns to a scowl. "By what right do you think you can ask fer a story? You who haven't share a wit of who you are nor one story!"
"Leave off John," Tuck says as he blows on his spoon to cool his stew. "We all have secrets and we all trust one another still."
"Yeah, but we been fighting wit' each other fer years. She's new an' thinks she can pull a finger an get a story. No sir. You want the story, you tell one of your own."
"Very well," Mulan agrees with a nod. "What would you like to know?"
"Tell us a story about yourself!"
"Tell us how you learned to fight so well!"
"Tell us how you got that sword!"
"I think I can weave all of these into one tale. But first, fill my tankard with some water so I may sip as I speak and not ruin the story with a hoarse voice."
"Why not some ale instead? It's closer."
"Because she don't want a thick tongue for this," Little Jonh answers for her and sends the boy off with the threat of a cuff.
As the boy runs to fetch the water, Mulan starts.
"Now listen close for none have heard this tale before. It began years ago, in the Empire beyond the last kingdom. My father was a general for the Emperor of that land. He fought and won many battles for the Emperor yet he never felt his victories had meaning. He pushed himself to learn all manner of fighting styles but in the end all he found was suffering and death, for that is what all fights lead to.”
Little John scoffs at this, earning another sour look from Tuck and a raised eyebrow from Mulan. He falls silent again, letting her return to her story.
“Deep in his heart, he knew there was a difference between fighting and violence but he could not define what it was and so he despaired. That is until he met my mother. She was a farmer, and all in her family had died in an illness that claimed many from her village. She worked the farm by herself and so some bandits thought she would be easy game. Nothing was farther from the truth. When my father found her, for he had been hunting these very bandits, she had disarmed them, given them dinner and had them working her fields in exchange for a roof and a chance at an honest life. Those that refused, and a few that thought to trick her, were tied up in the barn.
“Overjoyed at her methods, my father begged her to marry him but she refused. She thought he was handsome enough and he obviously had wealth but what did she know of his heart? So instead she offered him work for a chance to court her. Needless to say she was impressed with his work and he won her heart. He also won her over to his dream of the noble warrior and so together they made a school, to teach that being strong and knowing how to fight is not the way to power; the true path lay in discipline and peace. That fighting is for protection not aggression.”
The boy ran with her tankard of water then and joined the others who sat listening in rapt attention. All that is except Little John who sat shaking his head. He kept quiet, however, and so Mulan continued.
“Their fame grew and many noble families joined the school, which grew and grew. And because so many nobles came, my family could afford to teach whomever came and for whatever price they could afford to pay. I grew up in this school and was taught alongside all the other students. And now you know how I learned to fight."
She paused then to take a sip of the water and to give Little John a chance to speak his mind, for now he was nearly grumbling but another glare from Tuck and he turned back to his stew..
"Years went by and all was good, until the Ogre Wars came to the Empire. I remember the day the Army's seneschal arrived with the Emperor's request that all warriors that were able, join the fight. My father refused. Saying that the war would not be if the Emperor and King Midas had not roused the ogres by expanding into their territory. After the seneschal had left, my father called us all to a meeting. He told us of his reasons for refusing the Emperor but continued that we all must search our hearts to find our own reasons. That if we felt compelled to join the Army to protect our citizens from their Emperor's folly, then he would support us. And if we felt compelled to stay, he would support us as well. He trusted in his teachings to allow us our choice.”
Little John coughed then and it sounded almost like it might have been a word like coward, which earned him a firm elbow from Tuck.
“Despite my Father’s judgement, and I did understand it, I chose to go to war. I did not see why the farmer should pay for the folly of the Emperor while I sat safe."
Mulan paused again to take another sip.
"I fought and survived the Ogre war. Perhaps someday I will tell of those battles but that is not tonight's tale. A year and a half after I had left my father's school, to protect it and the village near it, I returned to find all in ruins. The ogres had broken through the lines.
“I searched the ruins of the school first, looking for my father and mother but found no one. Turning to the village, I found them and all the other students and teachers who had stayed. All were dead. Torn or crushed, the end was the same. I found few villagers though so I did not know if they escaped or if the ogres dragged them off. I did find four dead ogres to the fifteen of my Fathers fighters so they did account for themselves.
“It took me a week to bury the dead. During the day I would dig graves, at night I dug in the ruins of the school to save what I could. I found my Father's armor, trampled and so began to repair it. Since sleep would not come, I needed something to do while I rested. I found very little else of value that could be saved; a few staves and training swords, a scroll and a book. I must have eaten and drank though I do not remember it.
“On the third day, a donkey returned to the village and so I was able to drag the bodies of the ogres out of the village and burn them. The donkey also helped keep me warm at night and to dig with the aid of a plough during the day.
“On the fifth day, the villagers started to return. They told me how the students had fought the ogres to give the villagers time to flee though they knew it would cost their lives. They thanked me profusely and told me they prayed to their ancestors to speak for them in the next life. I accepted their thanks and prayers but I was numb to it all. I had gone away, to keep this village safe and yet it was destroyed in my absence.”
She fell silent then and picked up her bowl of stew.
“What happened next?” Little John burst out despite himself and to the relief of the other Merrymen.
“That will have to wait until tomorrow. It is time for the first watch.” Besides, she needed time to collect her thoughts for the next part of her tale.