“The life of a Kadungganan is one always defined by war and violence. If those things go away, warrior, then so will you.”Songs of Patan-un, Sword Mistress of the Bladed Leaves.
Masuna walked out of the barge before the raid began. He went over to Kiyam and shared some more betel nut with him. He had put on his full body armor the night before; Masuna almost never began his day without his armor. He wore a breastplate made of carabao horn over an abaca mail underneath. He wore a sarong adorned with gold over his bahag as well, which itself was tasselled. While the sarong might seem like useless decoration, he had learned from his master that the gold could be used for defensive properties.
To be extra safe, however, the gold that hung from Masuna’s sarong were little idols of the ancestor spirits.
In one hand he brought with him his kalasag, a long wooden shield that was as tall as he was. And then with it, he swung a kampilan, one of the heavier weapons in the archipelago, and one he had inherited from his previous master before he died.
It just so happened that all these accoutrements were to be useful to him that day.
It began relatively quietly. He spoke with Kiyam concerning the length of days it would take, and what they would need to buy over the stop in Tinuboan (food, fresh water, some wine, the writing implements that Bakong so wanted). In the midst of the seeming calm of the sea, an arrow flew over Masuna’s head, narrowly missnig his hair and striking deep into one of Kiyam’s paddling warriors. The warrior fell into the sea.
Kiyam shot to his feet. “Ancestors save me, what is going on?!”
Before he could get an answer, another barge slammed onto their side, almost sending Masuna flying off of the ship. Thankfully his full armor get up weighed him down, and he managed to clamber onto the side of the boat.
He looked up and saw a merchant barge, a balangay as they were called in these parts, reeling from their impact. Then, he saw a coterie of warriors, wielding poison tipped spears and firing arrows, clambering on board of their own barge. They seemed to be led by a lanky man with a blue pudong.
Masuna got onto his feet and adjusted his pudong. Beside him, Kiyam pulled out his handgun. “I only have one shot, and then I can only rely on my sword.”
“So you’ll be fine, then?” asked Masuna, smiling at him. Kiyam nodded, sighing and shrugging.
Masuna made his way across the barge, pushing any of the belligerents overboard easily enough with his kalasag and forward momentum. When he met one that also had a kalasag, he dispatched of him quickly with a ducking feint, followed by two swift cuts: one to the ankles to destroy his guard, and then one to decapitate him.
With his Kalasag, Masuna pushed the man’s limp body into the sea.
He fought his way in a flurry of martial arts and kinetic, frenetic action over the palanquin, where most of the warriors had gathered around. There were too many of them. They were able to easily dispatch of the paddling warriors and would make a beeline for the palanquin.
Masuna doubted he could get there in time. He readied to throw his kampilan should the need arise.
But as the raiders swarmed the palanquin, Bangahom stepped out, smokeless fire still in his fingertips. With a whispered word, that Masuna somehow felt in his bones, followed by the tearing of a bamboo bark whereupon a magical incantation was etched, the smokeless fire burst into several missiles, finding their mark quickly and crashing into the various belligerents. They flew overboard, or died on the spot.
Masuna made his way there anyway and leapt straight into the flap. Within, Bakong was up, her demon arm wielding the blacksteel kris that was her birthright. “I can fight.”
“With all due respect, bayi, you should stay in here. It seems your majesty is the one they want.”
“Then if it is me they want, then it is me they will get!” She surged forward, but at that moment the boat pitched violently to the side, and Masuna had to catch her so that she wouldn’t slam onto the wall of the palanquin once again.
“Bayi, I insist,” said Masuna, holding her up and wincing from the blow against him. “Your safety is our priority.”
“Bakong.” The princess bit her lip, fell silent. “Your skill with the blade I know full well, but these are warriors that will not kill you. They will abduct you, and they will do it without fail. So please, listen to me for just this once. We need you.”
Bakong, with a sigh, nodded. But she kept her grip in her blacksteel kris. “But you don’t need to worry about me should any of the raiders get into my palanquin.”
“I’d rather die before that happen,” said Masuna, placing a hand on Bakong’s head before walking out of the palanquin.
“Took you long enough, warrior!” said Kiyam, who had an abaca holster with four different handguns. He juggled them as he shot raiders overboard. Shoot, reload, toss, catch, shoot, reload, repeat.
Bangahom fought valiantly with that ball of smokeless flame, which they sent barreling about like a ball upon a rope. It suffused souls and sent others burning.
Masuna joined the fray, fighting only with shield and sword. He didn’t need anything else. Not yet.
Blood drenched the barge.
Eventually, the only one left aboard was the captain of the ship. That azure-pudong wearing madman. They managed to corner him by the edge of the barge. The man was covered in tattoos, suggesting that he had been doing this for a long time.
As Masuna got closer, however, familiarity dawned. “Dibuynas? What are you–”
“Ah, Masuna!” said the man, flashing a smile that glinted gold, for he had pegged his teeth with gold. A custom only nobles practice. Or those that could afford it. “You fight! And you protect. How absolutely noble.”
“What are you doing here? You should be back in Kangdaya. You’re part of the Royal Kawal.”
“And sometimes the Royal Kawal is sent on missions by royalty itself. Who am I to disobey orders? I owe my life to the Rajah.”
“What? Dibuynas, it is the Rajah that sent us on this mission.”
Dibuynas only shrugged, and then leapt backwards, giving a nonchalant two finger salute as he did. When he fell, his body slammed into the deck of the balangay, which zoomed past them and away, paddled quickly by a number of paddlers.
Masuna watched them as they fled.
Masuna returned to the palanquin as the warriors began to clean up. They went over to the paddles and began rowing toward Tinuboan, which was now a black dot in the horizon. Thankfully, not a lot of warriors were killed, less than a quarter.
“Bayi,” said Masuna as he entered. “I… I must beg for the lady’s forgiveness.”
Bakong shook her head. She was back to wearing her long sleeved garments. “It is all right, Masuna, you were simply doing your job is all, and I thank you for it. You have my safety in mind.”
Masuna nodded. “However I cannot excuse my rash actions. I have been too rough.”
“No, really, Masuna. It is all right. Pray tend to your duties. You need not worry about me.”
Masuna bowed low. “As the lady wishes.” He backed off, then. As he left the palanquin, Bangahom walked in as well.
“Sheesh,” he said, as he waddled towards them. “What’s up with him, eh?”
Bakong smiled at the flap. “Masuna is a faithful warrior. Duty is all he’s ever known. He was born into his role, forever a servant for the Rajah, but at least one that enjoyed the benefits of royalty.”
“I mean, I can tell that for sure,” replied Bangahom. “How long have you known the warrior-brave?”
“For most of my life. When I was moved to my cliff-side cave, he was among the five Heavenly Guardians that protected my bukot. He was the youngest among them, and as such, he was the one ordered around by the other guardians. He was always the one that carried food to me, taught me lessons, and ferried visitors to my domicile.”
“And he did it without complaint, I would think?” asked Bangahom.
To that, Bakong simply nodded.
Bangahom pushed even more. “The wistful look in your eyes, princess, tells me that there are memories you wish to unearth.”
Her eyes widened, her hair seemed to stand on end, as if she had been shot through by lightning. “N-No, not at all! Whatever makes you say that, Bangahom? Please, mind your tongue. Remember who you speak to.”
Bangahom shrugged, and only chuckled in response.
Upon the Village of Tinubuan, Banwa of datu Tabak Matar-ung
Masuna stepped out as they neared the island. “Have you been to this island before, Kiyam?”
Kiyam leaned against the prow, chewing on betel nut. “Aye. A fine place, popular stopping point for traders about the isles. You’re bound to find a lot over there.”
“Not hostile against random warriors aren’t they?”
“Not at all, but you do have to pay anchorage fee. And make an offering to their communal spirit house before entering. Their diwata must be appeased, and they believe that their diwata is the source for their mercantile success.”
“That makes sense,” replied Masuna, nodding.
Before long, the barge neared the city. It was a quaint town, and most certainly emblematic for the majority of settlements and villages in the Gatusan region. As usual, the docks sat up front, where a number of barges and junks made their stay. The docks would pay their anchorage fee to a port chief–the one there in Tinuboan was a large and hairy babuy tawo or pig-folk who smelled like flowers and the river at dawn–and the houses were built upon six to eight poles, known as harigi. These cottages usually had annexes for bathrooms and kitchens, although cooking outside was just as popular.
They got off the port, and Bangahom walked off of the barge. As Masuna followed after them, something tugged at his sleeve. When he looked behind him, he saw Bakong, wrapped in heavy silk shawls, wearing a ritual headdress that showed nothing but her eyes.
“I will use my order as the one you guard and as the royalty you serve. Let me leave and let me travel across the city with you. Prove to me your worth as a Royal Kawal.”
Masuna tried to respond again, but then decided against it. With a slight sigh, he pulled Bakong closer to him. “Keep close then, your majesty. Lest you be whisked away by the tides of traders.”
Upon the docks, they traveled through the marketplace whereupon traders would sell their wares or store them. Interspersed with the booths selling wares–from forest wax, honey, wild cats, and even debtors–were rows upon rows of these houses. No doubt guesthouses for use by merchants who stay here for a night before having to leave.
Not being a metropole, Masuna noticed how they didn’t have large community buildings built particularly for a single purpose. There was only one: the Datu’s longhouse itself, almost a hundred feet long and built upon thick hardwood pillars so high that an entire congregation can be performed underneath it. And truly there was where most executive functions were held.
Their Datu, Datu Tabak Matar-ung, was probably somewhere within his longhouse. However they were not here for him, they were simply here to stock up on provisions. And they had paid their dues to the port chief.
Bangahom walked about the crowded marketplace. At this time of the morning, merchants who carried around valuable goods had begun to sell within their tamhangan, waking up from whatever debauchery they did last night. Today they sold little pots of uncooked rice, alongside iron cauldrons from foreign lands as well as various trinkets and pieces of food traded from inland. Kiyam’s servants set about to buying as much of that as they could, trading it for fish that they had gathered along the way. There was no singular currency in the islands: other than gold trading beads and rings, commerce here was driven by barter. It was subsistence here after all, so the most important items were edible food that they could eat throughout the year without having to farm.
Bangahom waddled about, checking all the wares from all the people. Out here in the villages, they could not afford to put up noodle houses and teahouses like they would in the metropoles. The trade was simply too sparse to be able to prop up a business such as that out here. In the metropoles, trade was overly abundant, and people could live on barter rings and other such currency, which they could use to buy food from farmers from outside the metropoles.
Masuna eventually saw a young woman folding out pieces of palm leaf. No doubt she was a papermaker. She sat with her lambung–a tube skirt or wraparound skirt–up to her chest, and a tubatub–a kind of turban worn by women–hanging loosely from her head.
Pulling Bakong with him, he walked up to the woman and said, “Sister, I wish to buy a full stack. Here, three pots of rice.”
The woman raised a perfectly trimmed eyebrow, and then said, “If you want it with writing implements, you’re going to have to toss in some gold beads. Traders from Virbanwa are coming in a few days and those demons always want some gold since the Baikhans kill for it.”
“Done,” replied Masuna, who granted her a bracelet of gold beads.
Satisfied, the woman gestured for Masuna to pick up the palm leaf scrolls along with the writing implements, which were steles that could cut into the scrolls.
However, when Masuna turned to give it to Bakong, he found that she was gone.
With practiced smoothness, Masuna shoved the scrolls and writing implements into an abaca bag and then turned to Bangahom.
Bangahom was already waddling in a direction.
Masuna rushed through the throngs of people. For some reason, now that he has had to rush up to someone, the crowds of people became denser. More and more people began to cmoe out of their houses, carrying with them dried rice upon rattan plates, blacksmiths carryign chunks of iron for their smithing, paraawit singing in the square. It was a cavalcade of tawo too: while the most common kind were the usual tawo, there were also the musangtawo, the cat-folk like Kiyam, the irongtawo, the dog-folk, the gadyatawo, the elephant-folk, the babuytawo, the pig-folk, and there were even some winged banuytawo, the eagle-folk.
And these folk seemed to multiply.
Masuna eventually managed to push through, determination letting him force his way through the throngs of people. He had to remove his kalasag from his back and use it as a battering ram. Thankfully a kalasag in their midst was more than enough for the people to move out of the way.
Masuna followed Bangahom further into the village, where the houses got denser and taller. Eventually they climbed a steep hill, which led to a row of houses no doubt belonging to nobles–taller than usual, and having their own blacksmith sheds and washing houses separate from the main cottage itself.
“Bangahom!” yelled out Masuna.
Bangahom turned and pointed at the longhouse. “There! Bakong has been taken!”
“I got it. Don’t reveal your sorcery here,” said Masuna.
“I’m yawa, not a dullard,” said Bangahom. “I know when to reveal my hand.”
Masuna walked past him and climbed up the stairs, walked into the Datu’s longhouse without washing his feet on the cold water from the porcelain pot lying beside the door.
He pushed the door open. Within truly was Bakong, being manhandled by two warriors wearing nothing but a bahag, but covered in tattoos. They each held a long spear.
Sitting upon a platform bedecked in silks and textiles, the Datu Tabak Matar-ung raised his face. His pudong glitned with gold adornments, making him look like a garuda. “Ah, welcome to my humble village, Kadungganan.”
“I greet the Datu,” said Masuna. “But please excuse me for my brashness. The woman is under my ward, and I wish to take her.”
“O?” The Datu rose to his feet. His bahag fell about him like a veil, and he wore a cloth about his body that wrapped him like a loose blanket. “But she is mine, now. She is in this village, and she is under my jurisdiction. Unless you have the strength to take me on, she is my slave.”
With a smile, he gestured with his fingers. One of the warriors ripped the ritual headdress from Bakong’s head, revealing her moon hair, her strange azure eyes.
“Ah! See, there! She is a demon. Be glad I am not tossing you over a cliff and dashing your face upon the rocks, my fair bayi!” said the Datu. Datu Tabak stepped forward and grabbed Bakong’s face with his calloused and tattooed hands. “Hm… yes. Young, beautiful… she will make for a good wife.” He glanced up at Masuna. “Do you not think so, kawal?”