He showed up out of nowhere, scrawny little kid in too-big armor on a too-big horse, pretty as a girl. Shy, weak, never even held a sword before, he looked like he’d break if you breathed on him. I was sure he’d get taken up by one of the boy-lovers in the officers’ ranks and we’d never see him again, but he stuck around. He wasn’t good at the exercises, but he kept trying, stubborn as a mule and twice as touchy if you tried to help him out.
Then he started getting better at everything, like he’d only needed a chance to learn – slowly, yeah, but he was trying and it was working, by the gods. When he beat the lieutenant in a sparring competition, all of us started cheering. Who doesn’t like an underdog? And he kept getting better, and somehow he dragged the rest of us along with him, because no-one wants to be shown up by a scrawny little beardless kid. (Seriously, his cheeks were so smooth – never seen a razor in his life, I’d have bet.) But we liked him anyway. He was sweet under all that prickliness, not a bone of malice in him. You wouldn’t think that’d be a good thing for a soldier, but it made the troop a lot more cohesive; we were his troop, sort of: the underdog group, the weaklings who made good.
When we headed out for war, his armor fit, and he sat that huge horse like he was meant to be there. We were all proud of him, our shy little boy who couldn’t even hold a sword when we started training, and of ourselves too. And when we met the barbarians, he fought like a crazy thing, no fear in him at all, and he dragged us all along with him, charging at these maddened hordes like we thought we were invincible. And we won. And we kept winning. This little beardless boy led us to victory after victory, and we loved him for it. He was clever and brave and a little cunning, and sometimes his ideas were utterly insane, and we won. All of us were sure that he’d get promoted to captain, maybe even to general, by the time the war was over.
Then he was wounded, and the lieutenant dragged him back to camp; he was half-dead, and we all thought he wouldn’t make it. All that night we worried while the doctor worked; the boy screamed once or twice, and we bit our nails to the quick and burned incense to Kuan Yin.
In the morning, the doctor came out of the tent. “He’ll live,” he said, and we all cheered. Then the doctor held up a hand. “He’s a woman,” he said. Someone fainted. The lieutenant swore until he ran out of breath. I just stared at the doctor; how could he be a girl? Sure, he was small and beardless and shy and…ancestors, I thought, he’s a girl!
We almost left him there. We almost left him to die on that mountain. But – he was our boy, our little underdog, our brave, crazy little warrior, and we still loved him. So we took him with us, convinced the doctor not to tell anyone, told the kid we still thought of him as a good lad and a good soldier. He cried. And he – well, she, but we still called him ‘he’ – he replied with an outpouring of trust, with even crazier brave stunts, with working his little ass off to prove he was just as good as the rest of us. So we marched on together, and fought together, and the lieutenant stopped looking at him sideways; he was just one of us again. It was good.
When the war was over, we all went home, split up and went our separate ways. A few years later we all got invitations to the lieutenant’s wedding. We went, of course. There was the lieutenant, all handsome in his uniform, and there was the bride, in the strangest getup I’ve ever seen on a woman: a dress with a split skirt and a swordbelt around the waist, and her hair up in a soldier’s topknot. We stared at her for a long time before it sank in: that was our little beardless boy, our crazy little warrior who happened to be a girl. She still probably could’ve beat any of us in a fight, fancy dress and all. We cheered when they made their vows.
If there’s ever another war and my son goes off to fight, I hope one of that little warrior’s children – male or female – is there to fight beside him. And hey, if my daughter wants to go off to war, well, that’s alright too. She’d be a brave little beardless boy.