The King's Warriors
Sano gawked at Anina. “Brothers? I thought your entire family died in a raid!”
“Adoptive brothers,” she clarified, her eyes still trained on the commotion outside.
Sano looked at the crowd again. At this distance, he couldn’t see much, but he was still able to gauge that the three men were not very similar in appearances. There was one holding a spear, tall and darker than Anina and Sano’s nut-brown tone. The other was medium-built, with nothing very remarkable about him. The final one bore the tattoos of a full-fledged Gamhanan warrior, which was shocking considering that the kingdom of Dayung was in conflict with the Isles of Gamhana down south. It was one piece of news about the kingdom’s affairs that had managed to reach Sano and his mother.
“Er, which ones are your brothers?” Sano asked with a prickle of embarrassment. He wasn’t sure how much physical likeness he could expect from relatives.
“There’s Aklin, the tallest,” Anina answered. “And Danihon, the one with the tattoos. After my village was raided, I managed to fall in with an older couple in Gila who helped orphans like me. Aklin is their only son. Danihon was from Gamhana, and he arrived at the orphanage long before I came.”
Sano whistled low. “How did they end up serving King Bunawi?”
“Money, like most people.” Anina grew sombre. “Aklin and Danihon might only be some years older than me, but they are skilled in fighting and magery. King Bunawi needs warriors and mages, and he is content to hold the orphanage as collateral for my brothers’ loyalty.”
Just then, Silim rushed up the steps, quickly washed her feet on the landing, and came into the room with a basket held by her hip. Sano saw the jug of coconut milk and the various fruits that the villagers couldn’t stop talking about the previous day.
“I’m just stowing these away,” Silim informed them. She placed the fruits under the cover of some dining ware, and pushed the jug of milk between bottles of poultice. She sent Anina and Sano’s humble clothes a meaningful look, and added in a low voice, “You understand, right? Taxes.”
With that, Silim headed out to greet the warriors.
“What’s that about?” Sano asked.
Anina gave an amused grin. “Oh, I see. Tucked away in the foothills, you and your mother never had to worry about taxes, did you? Well, the taxes that the king demands depend on how well off the people are, and usually, part of the inspection is to estimate their wealth. Most people are honest enough, because to cheat the king is a crime, but also because it’s a point of pride to be rich. But this village isn’t wealthy. The goods from yesterday aren’t part of what the village would normally possess. If the warriors see them, it would give them an inflated sense of the village’s status.”
They turned back to the window and to the crowd forming outside.
“We have to stick to the same story we told the villagers,” Anina said. “They’ll tell the warriors about us anyway. Your illness might actually work out in our favour. If they are looking for the mage who stopped the landslide, they would be looking for a master of magic. Someone so skilled he can raise a wall of rock just in time to save the village. They wouldn’t readily connect that person with someone who was struck with mage-illness.”
Sano blushed, but he couldn’t disagree with that. He went back to his pallet, and tried to look feeble, the way he did when he was younger and didn’t want to do his chores. His mother never fell for it though, so he wasn’t sure how convincing he looked.
Anina sat down on the hut's ladder steps, and continued to sharpen some tools.
“What language should I use?” Sano asked her. Anina had said that the orphanage was in Gila, so her brothers must speak Gilan, but as warriors, perhaps it was better to address them in Dayungan. But since they were in a Kataman village, it might seem out of place to speak in anything but Kataman.
“Respond in whatever language they use first,” Anina answered. “If you speak in a different one, they’ll think you’re being contrary or patronizing.”
Outside, the chief of the village offered the warriors some refreshments. Soon enough, their voices and footsteps veered away. Silim didn’t come back inside, leaving Sano and Anina to occupy the hut by themselves. Beneath the blankets, Sano simmered with anticipation. It was like those three days after the landslide, not knowing what would happen. Hopefully the warriors were indeed there for an inspection, and not for Sano.
It was dusk when a loud gasp pierced the quiet hum outside Silim’s hut. There was a blur of movement through the doorway, and one of the warriors pounced on Anina. Sano threw his blankets aside, heart knocking against his ribs.
“Anina, I can’t believe you’re here!” It was Danihon, the one with tattoos, speaking in Gilan. And he wasn’t attacking Anina at all, but hugging her. Danihon took Anina’s face in his meaty hands, squeezed her cheeks, ruffled her hair, and embraced her again. “You’re so grown up! What are you doing here, of all places? Hey, Aklin!” he called to someone far off. “You’ll never guess who I found!”
Anina remained seated, hand gripping the whetstone. Sano couldn't see her expression, but there was tension in her shoulders. From what Danihon had just said, it seemed she hadn’t seen her brothers in a while.
And now she was helping a fugitive escape from them.
Sano shuffled himself back beneath the blankets, guilt churning with anxiety in his chest. Within moments, Aklin came into view. A delighted smile cracked across his serious face. He ran up to Anina and pulled her into his arms. This hug wasn’t as excited as the one Danihon gave, but Sano could sense the quiet intensity in it by the tightness of his hold.
“Where have you been?” Aklin asked. He had a rich melodious tone. “Ma said you left shortly after Danihon and I joined the army. And you never visited them afterwards.”
Sano scratched his head. Wait, so Anina actually had a family she could return to, but she just never had? Maybe Anina was awkward with her brothers not just because she was travelling with a fugitive, but also because she was dealing with some family issue.
“Oh, I’ve just been travelling,” Anina said with a wave of her hand. “I’m old enough to take up work after all. I didn’t want to burden Aunt Aka and Uncle Lukud anymore.”
“You were never a burden,” Aklin countered.
Silim approached the doorway, and Aklin and Danihon promptly dropped the conversation. Danihon cleared his throat.
“Is it all right to check your supplies?” He had switched from Gilan to address Silim in Dayungan. The old shaman nodded with a smile, and waved for them to enter her hut. Anina cradled the bundle of weapons and went inside first. Aklin and Danihon washed their feet and followed after. Silim came in last.
The warriors’ attention landed on Sano almost immediately.
“Who’s this boy?” Danihon asked Silim.
“Oh, Sano is Anina’s cousin,” Silim answered. Danihon raised his brows, turning to his sister.
Anina chuckled. “Distant cousin.”
For a long, breathless moment, Aklin and Danihon stared at Sano, their expressions unreadable. Sano curled in on himself, trying his best to look docile. Maybe he should say something, but he hadn’t been addressed yet, and he didn’t want to appear rude.
“I’m guiding Sano to a village in Gila, where a relative is expecting him,” Anina continued. Her voice sounded perkier than usual. “He succumbed to mage-illness along the way and here we are.”
Both warriors turned to Anina, and Sano barely masked his sigh of relief.
“Is that what you’ve been doing these past few years?” Aklin asked gently. “Looking for relatives? You should have told Ma and Pa. They wouldn’t have begrudged you that.”
Anina went with the flow. “It wasn’t my initial plan. It just sort of happened.”
“Well we’d love to hear more from your cousin later, but for now, we have to proceed with the inspection.” Aklin smiled at her kindly, then moved towards Silim’s shelf.
Soon, the village shaman was in deep discussion with the brothers about medicinal herbs and other supplies. Once or twice, Danihon glanced at Sano, but his blank look betrayed neither suspicion nor friendliness. Sano dreaded the questions they would ask him later about being Anina’s cousin.
“... we can inform Lord Matiban about the shortages, and I’m sure we’ll find a way to help,” Aklin murmured.
Lord Matiban? Sano had heard of that name before from one of this mother’s customers. Lord Matiban was the best warrior-mage in King Bunawi’s army, second only to the princess. Rumours said that Lord Matiban came from humble beginnings, though nobody was really sure about his past. What people were certain of was that Lord Matiban made his way up the army’s ranks in a matter of a few, short years.
Was Lord Matiban the other warrior who had come with Anina’s brothers?
A woman from outside called out that the evening meal was ready. Silim stopped showing the warriors one of her dying plants, and encouraged Aklin and Danihon to take the first servings. Sano followed with some hesitance, wondering if the warriors would continue their questioning during dinner.
As soon as Anina’s brothers approached the communal kitchen outside, they were swarmed by curious villagers who wanted news from Little Dayung – the original chiefdom of the Dayungan people and the seat of the kingdom now. Grateful for the respite from her brothers’ attention, Anina lined up for some food. When her turn came, she took some rice and mango strips with shrimp paste, but she left the tamarind stew alone. It was better to let someone else have her share of that dish.
When she stepped away from the line, she found her brothers consulting with the third warrior. The villagers who’d crowded around them now gave them space. If Anina hadn’t heard from earlier gossip that the third warrior was Lord Matiban, she would have never assumed that the man was King Bunawi’s second-in-command. He looked perfectly average with her brothers hovering on either side of him. He was neither as beefy as Danihon, nor as lithe as Aklin.
There wasn’t much Anina could discern from their expressions, but Lord Matiban seemed to be asking a lot of questions. Aklin shrugged. Danihon noticed Anina in the crowd, and waved at her with a bright grin. Anina flinched when Lord Matiban locked eyes with her. She only bowed her head in return.
Anina slipped away to a lone tree trunk behind Silim’s hut, close to where Sano made his offering. She hoped that the warriors would mistake her discomfort for shyness.
Sano joined her soon afterwards on the stump, though he looked back often at the crowd sharing their meals together.
“I’m sorry that you met your brothers under these circumstances,” Sano said after they’d been eating in silence for a while. He must have noticed the warmhearted way her brothers greeted her, and her inability to return the feeling. “How long have you been estranged from your adoptive family?”
Anina coughed at how bluntly he’d asked. So, he was more observant than she’d given him credit for. She almost didn’t answer, but that might make him assume wild things about her, which could be as bad as telling him the truth.
“Three years. Almost as soon as my brothers decided to serve King Bunawi.” Anina answered with the political angle. It was still true, but not her main reason for leaving the orphanage.
Sano nodded. “You’re uncomfortable with their decision, I’m guessing.”
Anina checked to see if anybody was nearby. The villagers were gathered near the hearth, and she glimpsed Aklin serenading some older folks. She leaned close to Sano and whispered nonetheless. “King Bunawi terrifies me. I’ve been afraid of him since I met him.”
“You’ve met him?”
“He visited my old village years ago,” Anina explained. “I almost liked him at first. He was handsome and had a smile that could charm a crocodile. Our village was poor, and not much bigger than this one. We threw a feast with whatever food we had. The chief of my village made an offering to Karingal on the king’s behalf, asking for future success. King Bunawi was enraged, because it implied that the chief didn’t think he was successful yet. But it was just a slip of the tongue, since the chief didn’t speak Dayungan very well. King Bunawi demanded twice the amount of tribute from us that day.”
It wasn’t even the punishment that discomfited Anina. It was the way King Bunawi had delivered the punishment in a benevolent manner as if he were a reasonable father who just wanted the best for his children. His smile had never wavered. To this day, Anina could never explain the confusion she felt about the king; the way she wanted to aspire to his standards, while feeling like she had already failed before she had even tried.
Her brothers’ decision to join the army was still a sore spot for her. “Before the raid of my old village, I had two older brothers as well. When Aklin’s parents took me in, I considered Aklin and Danihon my new pair of brothers. They were the ones who taught me everything I know about magic and combat. When they left for Little Dayung, it was like I had lost my brothers all over again.”
Anina felt almost bad for playing up the grief, but she couldn’t talk about her fear.
The years she had spent in the orphanage were quite happy, but she had never really recovered from the way she had destroyed her old village. She had never told her new family about it. They would have thrown her out if they’d known. An unstable mage like her, living with half a dozen other kids? No; it would have been too risky to keep her.
In hindsight, Anina really should have left earlier. But with Aklin and Danihon around, there had at least been the illusion of safety. They were older and so adept with magic, Anina had been certain they could stop her if she were to show signs of instability. After they’d left, she’d lost that sense of assurance.
That had been the time when Anina had realized what she truly needed were answers, not a false sense of safety. She must understand what had happened to her magic, and never repeat her mistake again.
Sano stiffened, and his gaze fell on someone behind Anina. She turned around. Her heart sank at the sight of Lord Matiban approaching. His hands were behind his back in a casual posture, and he wore a small, harmless-looking smile.
“Good evening. I don't believe we've met before,” Lord Matiban said in Dayungan. Although his voice didn’t have the soothing quality that Aklin’s did, it didn't hold any sharpness either. No accent marred his Dayungan, and the man spoke in the bold tones preferred in Little Dayung. “My name is Matiban.”
Anina didn’t know how to politely tell him they already knew that, so she just bowed her head and introduced herself. Sano did the same.
Lord Matiban gave an appreciative nod, his smile never wavering. He turned to her. “You must be my comrades' little sister. They've been telling me about you.”
Anina took measured breaths. Despite the pleasantries, she knew that Lord Matiban was here to interrogate them now. “Yes, adoptive sister. My village was raided when I was younger, but luckily Aklin’s parents helped me.” She didn’t have a choice but to tell the truth. Lord Matiban could easily verify with her brothers.
“You’re from the chiefdom of Gila then? Like they are?”
“No, I was from here, Katam.” Again, another fact Lord Matiban could easily find out.
“That’s a long way to travel,” Lord Matiban observed. “You would have been a child then. You crossed an entire chiefdom by yourself?”
“That is true, sir,” Anina said. “I wish I could tell you a more interesting tale other than I was desperate and I wandered for a very long time. Nothing like a violent raid and a wrecked home to keep you running.”
Lord Matiban stared at Anina for an unnerving moment, his expression blank. She had a string of deflections ready at the tip of her tongue if he insisted on prying. But at length, all he said was, “I am sorry to hear that. We are trying our best to prevent more raids from happening across the kingdom.”
Lord Matiban shifted his attention to Sano. Anina bit her lip to muffle her sigh, schooled her face into nonchalance, and prayed that Sano would answer cleverly.
“And you, my boy? I suppose you count yourself lucky that you have a guide who’s so familiar with the route to Gila?”
“I do, yes!” Sano nodded with twice his usual amount of zeal. Anina wanted to tell him to tone it down, but couldn't figure out how. “Anina’s been a great companion!”
“Yes, it’s definitely very generous of her to help out relatives who didn’t take her in when her village got raided.” Lord Matiban flashed Anina a look of playful pity. She realized that if she and Sano were supposed to be distant cousins, it would have made more sense for her to be taken in by his family than by strangers. Especially strangers who lived a chiefdom away.
“Oh, we only found out we were related recently,” Anina interjected. “See, I was feeling nostalgic, and decided to visit Katam. When I met Sano in his village, we found out that his uncle’s... wife was actually my mother’s... second cousin.”
Anina clasped her hands on her lap to better hide their trembling. She was losing control over their narrative.
“Ah, small world.” Lord Matiban nodded. Nothing in his face gave away whether he believed her or not. “Where was this village?”
“In the southeast,” Sano commented. “Near the jungle.”
“So you’ve travelled quite far already. You seem to be taking a circuitous route to Gila though. Surely it would have been better to travel straight to the Kunting River?”
“I wanted to see the sights,” Sano said, and Anina had to stop herself from looking at the barrenness surrounding the village.
“Oh yes, there are some interesting sights to behold around these parts, if you’re interested in rocks,” Lord Matiban went on in a serious tone. “Hey, some people are, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Quite unfortunate you caught mage-illness though. That must have put a damper on your sight-seeing. How did that happen?”
Sano gulped so loudly that Anina was certain Lord Matiban heard it. She remembered the fight in the mountain that culminated in the arrival of the Malicious Wind. There was no way they could answer even a partial truth to that question.
“Oh, it was a silly mistake, my lord. I plucked a handful of fruits from a bignay tree and forgot to make an offering. I was too excited about my journey.” Sano’s voice wavered a little.
Lord Matiban tutted. “It’s always good to bear in mind of the rules of magic. All great mages never forget. You know, sometimes when we find a very skilled mage, we bring them to Little Dayung to audition for the king.”
Lord Matiban finally brought his hands out from behind his back. Anina almost recoiled, but all he held was a winnower. She recognized it as the one she had scripted for one of the villagers.
“A woman told me you made this.” Lord Matiban handed Anina the winnower, and proceeded to compliment certain parts of her script.
Anina’s mind raced, trying to determine where this conversation was heading. Was Lord Matiban recruiting mages? There was no way Anina would serve King Bunawi, but how could she say that without being rude or implying she was disloyal?
“Here, I have a script that perhaps one of you can comment on.” Lord Matiban pulled out a sheet of bamboo from a pouch on his hip. Since Anina’s hands held both the winnower and her dinner, Lord Matiban gave Sano the sheet first. “I don’t think I’ve accounted for the mass correctly.”
Sano unrolled the sheet, and after a moment of reading, he smiled. “This is a command to heat sand so much it turns into glass, correct? Yes, I see the mass of the sand isn’t constrained, so the mage wouldn't know how much magic to use for heating. A small modification could fix that.”
Sano shifted the sheet to face Anina, and she looked at the command.
The blood drained from her head so fast, she thought she might faint. The script was written in the block-like symbols of Kataman, and he had just read the entire thing out loud!
Anina shot Sano a reproving look, and he stiffened, his eyes widening with the realization of his mistake. They were caught.