Sano woke to excruciating pain pulsing from his mid-section. His first thought was that the Ghoul of Katam must have taken a bite of his belly. His second thought was that he must have tasted awful if the Ghoul had left the rest of him.
Sano opened his eyes. A thatched roof met his gaze, but it didn’t resemble the roof of his house. The potted herbs hanging from the beams weren’t the same, and the lounging hammock was missing. For a long moment, Sano’s mind reeled. What had happened to him? Whose home was this?
“Oh good, you’re awake,” a voice whispered. Sano tried to turn his head, but that sent a hot wave of pain to his temples. He squeezed his eyes shut, just after he caught a glimpse of a girl with fringes framing her face.
Things clicked into place. The king’s warriors who came to arrest him. The Malicious Wind. The girl who accompanied him. All of it came flooding back.
Yet none of his memories explained the horrible pain. Sure, he’d never travelled far before, but how could that have caused something this bad?
A damp cloth covered his forehead. “Sano?” Anina called. “Look, you’ve caught mage-illness. You have to make an offering soon, otherwise you won’t get better.”
Everyone, those with magic and without, had to be harmonious with the entities of the spirit realm: spirits that inhabited and protected things or places, the spirits of ancestors long gone, and even the deities themselves. When somebody infracted this peace, they ended up ill until the maligned spirit was appeased.
Mages bore the responsibility of keeping the harmony even more than those who couldn’t wield magic, because in their ability to transform the world, the impact mages had was much greater. Failing to show proper respect resulted in an illness specific to mages: the temporary dimming of their magic, or in certain cases, a complete blockage. Either one was a condition painful enough that mages would quickly make amends with the slighted spirits.
Sano's mother had warned him about mage-illness many times. And it wasn’t like he had a habit of forgetting. After he had saved the village from the landslide, he had made a sacrifice to the spirits who dwelt near the bluff he had disturbed while raising the wall of earth.
However, amidst all the things that had happened since the warriors appeared, thoughts of making a sacrifice had slipped from Sano’s mind. What a rookie mistake. He’d been lecturing Anina about what mages ought not to do, and here he was, giving a real-life example.
Sano pushed himself from the floor, the blanket covering him falling away. The pain made him nauseous. There had been so many places in the forest that had been damaged by his fight with the warriors. He must have angered many spirits. No wonder he felt miserable.
“Where are we?” Sano mumbled.
“We’re in the village we were trying to get to.”
From what Sano remembered, they were still distant when he began to feel ill. “How did we get here?”
Anina’s eyes flicked to the side. “I’m not sure. I was carrying you, but the rain got heavier, and it was hazy after that.”
Sano gaped. She had carried him all the way here? “That’s incredible. I’m sorry you had to–”
“No need to apologize,” Anina interrupted. “Just focus on getting better so we can head out again as soon as possible. We really shouldn’t be imposing on the villagers like this. We were lucky there was space for us in their shaman’s hut. Do you have anything you can sacrifice? I can help you make your offering, but I cannot do it for you.”
The only belongings Sano had left were in his emergency pack, and most of them would be too useful for his journey to give up. But anything less valuable wouldn’t make for a valid sacrifice anyway.
“I have a small bag of rice grains,” Sano said. Rice was a luxury for him and his mother. Whenever they received some from their clients, they would always save a little bit in the pack.
Anina opened the bag, and rummaged for the pouch that held the grains. She helped him up, and they exited the small hut. The rickety ladder gave Sano some trouble, weak as he was, but he managed to get to the ground without tripping.
Dusk seemed to have just passed. The sky was a deep blue at its highest point and a softer hue on the horizon. A bright peppering of stars was visible in the darkest parts. The air was cool and rich with petrichor.
The village that welcomed Sano's sight would be considered small for normal standards, but for him, the half-dozen huts around him made it seem crowded. Several people huddled in the centre of the village, stoking a small flame. A few women gathered there, baskets of vegetables balanced on their heads or held against their hips. There was a pot waiting to be settled on the fire. Children buzzed in and out of the huts, half-playing, half-helping with the cooking. It was the first time Sano had been surrounded by so many people.
He remembered the times he'd watched the village by the bluff near his home, the way he had daydreamed about chatting with the villagers and playing with the kids. Even through the pain of mage-illness, he felt an echo of the yearning he’d had then.
“Better make your offering soon, my child.” An elderly woman approached Sano and Anina. “I see you’re getting teary-eyed from the sickness.”
“Sano, this is Silim, the village shaman,” Anina introduced.
A necklace with a crocodile tooth pendant hung around Silim's neck, and strings with precious stones dangled around her waist. A gold band encircled her wrist. When she smiled, there were flakes of mother-of-pearl screwed on her teeth. They reminded Sano of his mother, who had silver studs on her teeth, and who had occasionally lamented that they didn't have the means to decorate his.
“I’m glad to see you’re awake,” Silim told Sano in a gentle voice. “You can make your sacrifice by the back of the hut. Not many people go by there.”
Anina helped Sano limp his way to the spot. He knelt, pulled the strings of the pouch open, and scattered the grains on the ground. He bowed his head and whispered a prayer. Since he couldn’t remember all the places that had been disrupted by the fight, he dedicated the sacrifice straight to Tayu, the guardian spirit of the mountain, and Hasik, the god of forests, plants and crops.
Almost immediately, the pressure in Sano’s temples eased, and the ache in his core became more bearable. Anina helped him up, and she took him back to Silim’s hut to rest.
For dinner, they received a simple meal from the communal kitchen outside, gingered broth with water-spinach served in coconut husks. When Sano finished eating, he felt comfortable enough that he slept deeply for the rest of the night.
The next morning, Sano’s fever weakened and colour began to return to his cheeks. Anina knew mage-illness took a few days to abate, but she was still a little disappointed not to find Sano hopping about. She was starting to get restless. The warriors that the Malicious Wind had turned to wood would obviously not return to the king or whomever they reported, and their absence would eventually be noticed. The king would surely send more warriors to look for Sano, if he hadn’t yet already.
And what about the Hermit Mage? The day Anina met Sano, he had mentioned that his mother had already been away for eight days. Anina didn’t know how long the Hermit Mage would stay in the Gilan village, but there was a chance she could already be starting her return trip. What if they missed her along the way?
There was also the worrying fact that Anina didn’t remember how she and Sano had arrived at this village. One moment she’d been struggling in the rain, and the next, she’d woken up with people prying her from the muddy ground. It was possible that Anina had indeed carried Sano all the way to the village, but what could explain her large lapse in memory? Exhaustion?
Stranger still were Anina and Sano’s clothes, which had positively reeked of mango for some unknown reason. Silim had thought they were wearing perfume.
Anina stewed with unease. Why did inexplicable things always happen to her?
While Sano recuperated from mage-illness, Anina helped around the village to pay for the villagers’ hospitality. There wasn’t much to do in a small village like this. There was limited vegetation, with patches of bamboo and rattan growing in some spots, and a handful of trees that hadn’t yet produced any fruit. The villagers subsisted on rice, roots, and meat they traded with merchants who came a few times a month, in exchange for woven baskets, wickers, and furniture made from bamboo and rattan.
At first Anina helped with cleaning, but after Silim found her scripted staffs, the villagers requested for her to write some scripts on the things they wove. One woman asked for a heating anto script on a rice winnower; another asked her for a durability script on a large basket.
The head of the village, an elderly, soft-spoken man, talked to Anina from time to time to make sure she and Sano were comfortable. Anina hated to impose and asked for almost nothing.
They had arrived at the village at an opportune time. The villagers were in a pleasant mood over a basket of rare goods someone had left behind among the bamboo copse. A young boy had come across it the day after the storm; it contained two unripe jackfruits, a bundle of rambutan, rolls of pandan leaves, a jug filled to brimming with rich coconut milk, several branches of langsat, and thick stalks of sugar-cane. Nobody knew whose basket it was, since other than Sano and Anina, the villagers weren’t aware of anyone else who had come by. Many people ended up considering it a boon from the ancestors because they helped Sano and Anina.
When the villagers asked what their business was, Anina didn’t stray too far from the truth.
“Sano needs to meet a relative in Gila,” Anina answered. She was good at keeping secrets, but not at keeping track of lies. “I’m more familiar with the routes of the chiefdoms, so I’m guiding him there.”
“And you two are..?” a young woman asked.
“Distant cousins,” Anina replied. “Very distant.”
The villagers didn’t pry, but by the hushed whispers, Anina sensed they were curious for more.
On their third day in the village, Sano and Anina sat on the steps to the shaman’s house, sharpening the knives and short swords that the villagers used to harvest bamboo and rattan. Sano’s fever had broken, and Anina kept her hopes up that they would be able to travel early next morning.
Anina was so focused on the blade she was sharpening that when Sano gasped beside her, she nearly cut her hand in surprise.
“What’s wrong?” She inspected him for any signs of injury, but there weren’t any.
Instead, he was staring far into the distance. There, a group of men surrounded one of the smaller huts. They formed four queues, two on opposite sides, lined up with the logs sticking out of the hut’s floor. In one movement, they placed the respective log on their shoulders and heaved up the entire hut.
Sano stood up so fast, his knives and whetstone fell to the ground.
“They’re moving the hut!” he exclaimed, loud enough to attract the attention of the nearby men and women. The children playing tag stopped briefly to look at him.
“Yes, I heard that the storm the other day loosened the soil around one of its posts so they’re relocating it.” Anina explained. Sano’s smile stretched wide enough to be a little unnerving. She patted his arm, aware of all the looks they were getting. “Come sit back down, no need to get so excited. It’s just work.”
“I’ve never seen people carry a hut before,” he said, eyes glazed. “Do you think they’ll let me help?” Before Anina could answer, he took off in the direction of the hut.
“Wait!” she called after him. “Sano, you’re not supposed to overtax yourself!” Why in the world would someone who had just recovered from a fever want to carry a hut? Anina was well and whole, and that was the last thing she wanted to do.
Sano must have convinced the men to let him try, because one row shifted on their log to make room for him. Anina shook her head, and went on sharpening the weapons.
When Sano came back some time later, he was covered in a thick coat of sweat. He was still grinning, but his languid steps and limp arms exposed his weariness.
“You’re all achy again, aren’t you?” she barked at him.
“It was worth it!” Sano panted.
Anina rolled her eyes and shooed him into the hut, demanding he rest. She took his share of the knives and began sharpening them herself.
Anina had hoped that the day would proceed without anything else provoking Sano. Sure, he was experiencing ordinary village life for the first time, and she could forgive his zealousness, but did he really need to act so childish? Why couldn’t he just keep his excitement to himself? They didn’t need the extra attention.
Anina’s wish for a restful end to the day withered with the sun. Just as the day waned, there came a frenzy at the outskirts of the village. She peered through the window of Silim’s hut, wondering what the fuss was all about. She found not one, not two, but three of King Bunawi’s warriors being welcomed by eager villagers.
“Dear Karingal, are we cursed or what?” Anina muttered.
“What is it?” Sano asked. He pulled away the sheets on his pallet, and strode to the window beside her. “Oh.”
Dread hung in the air between them. The warriors were very distinctive in their rich red turbans and the expensive make of their tunics and embroidered loincloths. Multiple bands of gold circling their arms and ankles glinted against what little sunlight remained. The gems in the sheaths of their swords could probably buy rice for the entire village for a year.
“Do you think they’re here for me?” Sano asked.
It was a fair question. There was a chance that these warriors were not here for Sano. King Bunawi often sent warriors to inspect villages to ensure the laws of the kingdom were being observed. Sometimes they came to recruit a talented mage or a young person who showed potential as a warrior. It was an odd use for the warrior class, but there were many things that King Bunawi did differently than other leaders in the archipelago.
“They might be here for an inspection, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that they’re looking for you,” Anina said.
“Should we escape?”
It didn’t seem like a good idea. There was nowhere to hide nearby, and the villagers would surely tell the warriors about their visitors.
Anina stood on her tiptoes, trying to get a clearer view of the three warriors. There was one tall enough that his head was above the crowd. The slimness of his face and the curliness of his hair seemed familiar, stirring a small hope inside her. When a villager shifted and revealed that one of the other warriors bore tattoos all over his body, she allowed that hope to bloom a little more.
“No, I think we might be able to bluff our way into making them think you’re not the mage who stopped the landslide,” Anina replied.
“Well, two of those warriors might be more inclined to believe me,” she explained. “They’re my brothers.”