AN: All characters belong to Disney. Copyright winter is coming, 2015.

Hua Mulan

Chapter One

Hua Mulan woke up with a start, her gut clenched with a sudden foreboding. It was the early hours of the morning; the roosters had yet to crow. So what had awoken her? With a thud of alertness echoed by her heart she remembered – today was one of the most important days of her life. Today she would meet the Matchmaker, who would chose the one she would be married to for the rest of her days.

Mulan's skin broke unbidden into a cold sweat. She knew sleep would be futile now with this cloud of dread hanging over her. Rolling out of bed, she wiped her bleary almond eyes, and looked around. Her hanfu was carefully draped on a hanger from the wall so as to remain unwrinkled. It consisted of a yi, a narrow-cuffed, knee-length tunic tied with a sash, and a narrow, ankle-length skirt, called chang, worn with a bixi, a length of fabric that reached the knees.

It was a fine thing, made of silk, chiefly a brilliant red, for luck. Mulan felt as though she would need it. In what way would she appeal to a man? She stroked the fabric. Her mother had put much care into the hanfu, and Mulan knew, with a deep twinge of guilt, it would have cost more than what a washerwoman and a retired general such as her father could afford to spend on their only (rather disappointing) daughter.

Mulan looked down at her own thin, unwashed shift, the feeling of dread slowly rising uncomfortably, like smoke from a dragon's nose pouring into her lungs. Her hand found her throat and she dashed from the door, out into the clear stillness of countryside. Winding through paddy fields, Mulan ran and ran, her feet kicking up sprays of muck onto her shift. She stopped for breath, hand reaching out for the closest thing to steady herself as she bent double, gasping for air.

She looked up, feeling the cool stone unexpectedly smooth. Her face lit up with the first genuine smile she had had in a while. Towering above her was the statue of her family's guardian, a pround and ferocious upright dragon, looking down at her with round, accusational eyes.

"Of course I ended up here", Mulan laughed to herself. "What better place to come than the shrine of my ancestors, when I am to be given away today?" In a fit of tenderness she hugged the statue. "You have done well protecting me when I was young, O my guardians." She rested her face against the stone. "It will be a shame to leave you."

The shrine behind the statue seemed to look on impassively, a squat and stoic building which had survived centuries in the spot. Mulan walked up the small rocky path, ignoring the sharp jabs of the rocks biting into her feet. All foreboding seemed to ebb away the closer her feet took her to the shrine.

Within it, something stirred.

Mulan walked up to the first of three podiums where her ancestors waited in the dark. She struck the flints someone had left there and used it to light a candle, before walking before the podium and lighting the first stick of incense. A statue of a thin, tall woman with beady alert eyes gazed down on Mulan, full of hidden wisdom. "Grandmother Lian", Mulan said. She bowed deeply. "I am honoured to have lived these eighteen years in the Hua family. However," Mulan sighed, "I am lost. I am not graceful or practiced at social airs, such as you. I am not delicate or dainty or good at pouring tea. Please teach me…" Mulan struggled, her voice cracking. She sighed. "Please teach me how to have the qualities of a good wife."

Hua Lian sniffed to herself, invisible to Mulan's eyes and ears, floating tranquilly behind the podium. "Teach that child how to be womanly? How to be feminine and how to please a man? I had better luck teaching rabbits not to copulate," she scoffed. Still, her sharp eyes filled with pity as she stared down at her granddaughter, longing to tuck back a strand of hair that had fallen into Mulan's eyes.

Mulan moved to the next podium, that of a jolly-looking bald man with a long beard and a round stomach. She lit the incense before bowing again. "Grandfather Kuo," Mulan sighed. "Oh how I miss you! I remember when I was a child and you would bounce me upon your knee," Mulan sighed, gazing at his statue fondly.

"Get out of the way, I want to see my granddaughter!" Hua Kuo harangued, elbowing Lian aside. She let out a squeak of protest, removing a large ghostly fan from her sleeve and opening it in one motion, eyeing Kuo over it as a viper eyes mice. "As do we all," she stated waspishly. "Shh!" Kuo hushed her, batting his hand to silence her. "Mulan is speaking to me!"

Mulan let her knees rest on the cool stone floor, ignoring the chill in the shrine. "Grandfather… please let me bring honour to my family today at the Matchmakers," she whispered, shoulders held dejectedly.

"You won't honour them with eyebags such as those," Lian remarked, gesturing at the dark circles that were ringed under Mulan's tired eyes. "Nor with that hair – what a rat's nest! And her shift is all speckled with mud, is she a cow?" she hissed, peering critically over Kuo's broad shoulder. "Silence, woman!" Kuo bellowed. Mulan did not react, reaching out her hand to stroke the characters carved into the podiums.

"Jī bù kě shī, shí bú zài lá! Mulan will not get another chance if she fails to impress the Matchmaker! I will not see my only granddaughter whisked off to marry some dolt! Who probably has inferior ancestors, too, to make such a dolt!" Kuo blustered.

A breeze blew through the shrine and Mulan shivered, pulling her shift around her. She yawned to herself.

"Oh, she looks still like a child" Hua Lian cooed. She turned, resting a translucent hand on Kuo's arm. "Inferior ancestors indeed would be a shame," she purred. "But you cannot deny that Hua Mulan is in need of every bit of help she can get."

"Help we will no longer be able to provide, once she is given to a new husband," Kuo sighed despairingly. He tilted his head.

"Unless…"

"Unless…" Lian echoed.

They both turned to stare at the third podium. It was the oldest of all. Even Kuo and Lian did not know what the characters inscribed on the glistening jade meant, only rumors. Rumors of a guardian, banished and lowly, for failing to protect a distant ancestor of the Hua family.

"She must light the incense of the third podium," Lian breathed.
"It is foolhardy, but it is the only way we can continue to watch over our gentle Mulan," Kuo agreed.

They both turned toward Mulan's position, curled into the fetal position beneath the podiums, and let out beleagured sighs simultaneously. She had fallen asleep with tears staining her cheeks, the white candle wrapped in her left hand, with the flame slowly guttering out. Kuo turned to Lian and offered his hand to hers. Interlocking their fingers, they stared at the prone figure of their granddaughter as the first rooster crowed, signalling the crack of dawn.


Vocabulary and meanings:

Lian: Lovely willow
Kuo: Capacious or limitless

"Jī bù kě shī, shí bú zài lái" - Chinese proverb: Opportunity knocks at the door only once.


Author's note:

As you can tell, this version of Mulan is sticking rather closely to the 1998 version... so far! But it will not remain that way for long *devious smile*. Things may get a little R-rated later on, and less attached to the movie version, so consider this a forewarning if you're a sensitive soul.

I am trying to be at least a little bit historically accurate by setting this tale of Mulan in the Northern Wei dynasty, where one of the first versions of the first ballad was set. But I am in no means a historian, so I apologise in advance for any facts I get wrong!

Hope that you enjoy!

H x