Loud rustling and snapping of dried flora halted Chesa’s stride. Holding her breath, she lifted the firefly-filled cloth tied to a twig to look around the ominous dense jungle.
“It’s probably a monkey.” Abel kept going. “There’s lots of them here.”
“Or a kapre.” With feet glued to the ground, her chocolate brown eyes grew wide, darting from tree to tree, excited for a glimpse of this monster that petrified unruly children with the mere mention of its name. Reputed to be a big hairy man with chimpanzee arms, this creature lazed on a tree while puffing on tobaccos, and had a taste for fledglings. She’d been reared under watchful eyes, ensuring she wouldn’t venture into the jungle. So, upon getting wind of the quest for Adarna, the bird of magic, she imposed herself on the seeker. It was believed Adarna held the key to bringing back Apo Init, the Sun, to the village. “Maybe it’s kaibaan,” she chuckled in delight. The mount-dwelling dwarves were also of interest for sightseeing. Then she shivered at the thought of encountering a dark aboriginal spirit. “I hope it’s not a pugot, Buni help us.”
Noticing she’d fallen behind, Abel stopped, looking back; wedges formed between his coppery eyes glaring at his dawdling companion. “You don’t believe in them, do you?” A cropped uncovered head, contrary to the traditional long hair tucked inside a potong or turban befitting his warrior status, accentuated the fierceness of his face with a chiseled jawline. “Scary stories were made up to make children behave. We must go, we don’t have time to waste.”
“Don’t be rude. Unlike you, great hunter and warrior, I didn’t know what the jungle was like.”
“You’ll have all the time to explore after we find Adarna.”
Chesa was beside him “I wonder what *Apo Init looks like?”
“He’s humungous. He lives up there with Apo Langit.” Abel looked up to the jungle’s roof made of overlapping leaves, preventing a view of the Sky. Wearing just loincloth over his G-string, he bore the image of an indestructible warrior with his toned tawny body primed for combat; though his village hasn’t been assailed since he was born.
“Have you seen Him?”
“Many times, outside the jungle.”
“I want to see Him!” Chesa chuckled like a little girl.
“If you hurry up, you will, before He goes to bed.”
Just a smidgen shorter than Abel, Chesa’s gait kept up with his. “Do you believe that our ancestors offended Apo Init causing him to turn his back on us?”
*Apo is an honorific word used to address the elders or anyone deserving respect
“Not really. I think we should cut some trees to let Him in.” Abel kicked a stone out of his way.
“Kill trees?” Chesa’s gasped was loud. “They provide for us and for the forest creatures.”
“Not kill them. Just clear out some leafy branches from the tops, like those up there.”
Chesa looked up as a moan grated through the silence, stopping them in their tracks. Each scanned around to see the source of the spooky sound. She inched closer to Abel, securing her tapis so she wouldn’t be rendered naked while they bolted out of this eerie environment. After winding her waist long black hair into a bun, she was set to run.
Treading lightly, one step at a time, they continued on their way. Abel unsheathed the wide knife from his back, assuming a fighting stance as he advanced in front of Chesa. Branches on a tree up ahead swayed, though the area was void of wind.
Chesa swallowed. “What are you doing? You’ll get both of us killed.” She went in front of him, prostrating. “Please forgive us for entering your home. We’re just passing through, please don’t harm us.”
“Get up, Chesa.” Feeling sure that danger wasn’t imminent, Abel put his weapon away. For this adventure, he loaded himself up with an arsenal including a widely-jagged-edged knife with a sharp hook on the top of the tip, a bow, ample arrows, a blowgun, and poisoned darts carefully wrapped to avoid accidents.
“Please let us pass.” She remained where she was. “Please, don’t harm us.”
“Get up.” Though he wanted to lift her off the ground, he couldn’t so much as touch her clothing as ingrained taboos forbade touching anyone. “Showing weakness to these creatures is a sure way of getting picked on.”
“I’m respecting them so they’ll let us go.”
“Do as you want then.” Abel started to go.
That got her standing, dusting off her tapis and running to catch up. “How dare you leave your princess unprotected like that!”
“I’m trying to avoid trouble for both of us. Since you’re stubborn as a carabao, I’m just wasting words on you. Besides, you acted more like a scared slave than a princess.” He sped up. “I want to start climbing the mountain as soon as we can. It’s best to catch Adarna in his nap time.”
“I smell tobacco,” whispered Chesa. “There’s a kapre up there but I can’t see it.”
“Ignore him so he’ll leave us alone.”
A band of warriors barred their path. “Who do we have here?” The leader, in a silk shirt and pants with a blue potong, strode to the pair. He walked around them, clutching a handful of Chesa’s hair. “Soft as silk,” he said, as he moved his hand to her bare shoulder.
“Don’t touch me.” Chesa slapped the man, who was quick to strike back.
He chuckled. “You have fire in you. You will serve me well as a second wife and bear me strong sons.” He grabbed Chesa’s wrist as he moved along.
Refusing to follow and struggling to dislodge the man’s vice grip, she was lugged along. Her feet dragged on soil and tiny flora along the path, scratched by sharp dried twigs; her arm felt close to dislocating.
“She’s a person like you and me. She belongs to no one.” Abel blocked the man’s path keeping his cool for his debut confrontation. From the colour of the man’s turban, he was aware he was facing a nobleman but didn’t think twice about defending the princess. Chesa uprighted herself, kicking her abductor on the leg, to no effect.
“I am Prinsipe Taer, heir to the Bundok tribe. I get what I want.” The mature warrior puffed out his chest while his escorts circled them with their long knives at the ready.
“She is free to live the way she chooses.” The young warrior stood his ground.
A warrior made a move towards Abel but was struck down with an arrow. While some of the battalion headed for the woods to seek revenge for their fallen comrade, the rest planted their torches in the ground and started to converge on him. With his heart pumping in double time at the overwhelming number of enemies, Abel got to his fighting stance, ready to take down as many as he could before his demise. At the sight of the posse from his tribe emerging from the bushes to his rescue, he sighed relief. Their presence allowed him to focus on his fight with the prince, who’d released Chesa.
“Leave me,” Chesa grabbed the knife from her tribesman who attempted to sneak her out of the skirmish. Drawing from her training, she managed to injure a foe but her bravado was short-lived as she was injured in her struggle to defend herself. After her tribesman put the warrior down, she was whisked away.
“Princess, you’d be more help being safe in the village,” insisted her rescuer. “I’ll take you straight to Apo Albularyo to be patched up before we face Ari’s anger for not protecting you.”
His words opened Chesa’s wisdom to the fact that with her status, the ramifications of her recklessness put not only herself but everyone in the village at risk for Ari, the King’s, wrath. With downcast eyes, she said, “I’m sorry.” Not used to a nobility’s show of humility, her companion kept silent. “How did you know we were in trouble?”
“We were with you all along. Your father knows about everything you do and always makes sure you’re safe.”
In the heat of the clash, an angry roar reverberated through the jungle, shaking trees, and halting the fight. Missiles of fireballs struck the ground and warriors alike, anteing up their fight for survival. Rather than scurry for cover, the warriors continued with the business of decimating one another, at the same time, trying to stop the new player’s interference. Trees caught fire but were quickly snuffed by unseen forces.
“Kapre, up there!” yelled a fighter. Warriors that heard him, were quick to let loose arrows and darts to the usually unseen creature. He wasn’t easy to overcome. Dotted with projectiles, He vented wrath, roaring from the depth of His lungs, releasing the biggest ball of flame. A great thud followed and the creature laid unmoving on the ground, disappearing right after.
Abel’s lack of battle experience put a twinkle in his adversary’s eyes, who’d afflicted a few cuts on the novice warrior and was sure of a victory. Weakening from his blood spilling, the younger fighter hung on to his feistiness. In a last desperate swing, he managed to decapitate the prince.
When all was said and done, warriors from both sides realized the destruction they’ve inflicted on one another and their surroundings. Bewildered eyes showed the realization of the loss of the prince of the Bundoks. The leader of Abel’s rescuers wore his heavy heart in his dull, remorseful eyes; it became clear that this was an unnecessary loss of great men that might have been prevented with diplomacy. Exhaling deeply, he was left with no choice but to dispatch the rest of the prince’s company to prevent retaliation. The victors got busy cleaning up traces of this tragedy, carefully wrapping up the fallen noble. Supplication for the dead was sent to Buni, The Creator, to accept all in his domain.
Then, Abel collapsed.
He awoke to a chant. Blinking a few times to clear his vision, he realized he was lying on a mat, in a smokey hut. He coughed to relieve his parched throat. The albularyo was squatting in front of burning incense at one corner of the hut.
“Welcome back from the land of the dead,” said the elder, holding a coconut shell full of water. “Drink.” With care, he trickled water into his patient’s mouth. His lineage was of adept healers, whose skills were well-known and sought after by other tribes.
Abel groaned as he pulled himself up to a sitting position. “What happened?
“I don’t know what happened but you were brought to me with several cuts on your body.”
“Princess Chesa…. Adarna.” He attempted to stand up.
“She’s fine. Take it easy.” The albularyo set the coconut shell down. “Adarna is where it is. We’ve lived this way all our lives. We’re not in a hurry for changes.”
“But Ari’s command.” Unable to overcome his physical pains, Abel laid again.
“Can wait until you’re well.” He reached for a bamboo, pouring a murky liquid from it into another coconut shell. “This will help you gain your strength back and heal your wounds.”
Abel choked from the obnoxious tasting concoction. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I have a feeling that we don’t need Adarna. If we can clear up the canopy, Apo Init will be in right away.”
The healer was taking in the young warrior’s words as he coughed from the thickening smoke of his sacrifice for Abel’s recuperation. “The trees are ancient and so tall. They would have to be cut down on their trunks closer to the ground–that would be a shame.”
“I thought about that.” Abel sighed heavily as he sat up again. “Does Adarna really have the power to let Apo Init breakthrough without damaging the trees?”
“We’ll find out once you bring it here.” Old bones creaked as the albularyo stood. “I’ll inform Ari you’re awake.”
Pleased to see the heroic fighter, Ari’s smile, though reserved, gleamed pride. “Your fighting skills put you in with the greatest warriors of our tribe. I’m glad to see you’re okay.”
“It is my honour to serve our village, Ari.” Seated on the floor, Abel bowed. “I’m sorry I couldn’t protect the princess. I shall strive to be a better fighter to avoid injuries in battles so I can do more to keep everyone safe.”
The king sat on the stool facing the warrior. “There’s no shame in your injuries. You fought and beat a highly skilled warrior that no one I know of has survived. That was brave of you. You inspire our upcoming warriors.”
“I am regretful that it ended that way. I had no intention of killing the prince. I offer my life to make amends.”
“That won’t be necessary. We’ve visited the Bundoks. In return, we’ve welcomed them to our village. After talking to the warriors involved in the battle, which I’m sad to say were mostly our tribesmen, except for one of theirs…” Ari paused, noticing the pallid Abel’s agonized eyes, face clouding over with sorrow. The king empathized. “Nothing will bring Taer back, Ari Pudao has accepted that and promised he would not seek vengeance. To guarantee peace and alliance between our tribes, we agreed to the union of Chesa and Laing, the heir.” In Ari’s eyes, the helplessness on Abel’s demeanour proved his affection for the princess. “There would be no greater reward for both of us than for you to rule after me, with Chesa beside you; but as things are, we will have to find you a suitable wife. One from another tribe to expand our alliances.” Abel's eyes were downcast. Ari exhaled deeply. “The elders and I have been considering your idea of clearing the covering of leaves over our village. We agreed that cutting down the trees would be a waste. We would like you to go on with your mission when you’re well enough.
“As you command, Apo.”
Ari stood. He turned to the albularyo. “Take great care of him.”
The healer bowed.
After a few days of convalescing, under the albularyo’s tender care, Abel set off for the mountains with three companions. Chesa’s was guarded at every moment lest she was inclined to slip away to join in the adventure.
Abel ran most of the way through the jungle, and was close to the top of the mountain, which he’d effortlessly climbed, when his entourage, huffing and puffing, caught up with him.
“The golden tree should be easy to spot.” Going their separate ways, they agreed that whoever found the tree would take Adarna, then whistle to alert the rest that the objective was completed, and they could then rush home.
As they searched, the trees seemed to multiply, increasing their search area. They bumped into each other several times, agreeing that there were more trees than when they first arrived. Looking haggard and downtrodden, the three moaned of exhaustion, confusion. At one point, all four stood basking in the glories of Apo Init. Epiphany hit as they witnessed Him casting brightness upon their village. He never abandoned them as they were made to believe. He was with them all along.
Drained from the heat of Apo Init, Abel sat against the trunk of the tree to avail himself of the shade. A very colourful bird alighted on a branch. “I know about the need of your village,” said a sweet melodious voice. He stared at the beautiful bird, whose feathers seemed to shimmer creating a kaleidoscope of intense colours. “Yes, it’s me talking to you,” Adarna’s eyes locked with his. He wondered how this beautiful bird, not much bigger than others, with a tuft on its head, was talking when he never saw its beak part. “I will grant your Ari’s wish if you give me something you value most in return.” Abel panicked. The most important thing in his heart was Chesa, and he wasn’t willing to sacrifice her for an issue that could be solved without magic. “Do you have an answer for me?”
Abel thought and thought but couldn’t come up with anything valuable in his possession. There was one thing that he could think of, though it now meant nothing to him. “My life. I give you my life for light in my village.”
“I would take it, but I sense it lost its value to you.”
“My heart is broken. The love of my life has been promised to another.”
“I will allow the sun in your village, according to your Ari’s wish. When you find out you cherish Buni’s ultimate gift to you, I will collect on your promise. Until then.” Adarna disappeared.
The whole village was in a frenzy, rife with anticipation. The moment of the union of the tribes was drawing close. Once the decorations were installed, the food got nods, everyone–guests and villagers changed for the grand occasion.
At the blessing of the noble couple, Apo Init burst into the village, cascading light and warmth over everyone and everything. Ooohs and aaahs abound, followed by exalted jubilations.
Ari cleared his throat, raising his hands to get the people’s attention. The silence that followed was intense; anticipation for the king’s words was heavy in the air. “Today, we are blessed by Apo Init. Let us keep this moment in our hearts and strive to have happiness and peace, not only within ourselves but with our neighbors.” People cheered. He waited until the din died down. “This was made possible with the earnest desire of our greatest warrior, Abel, to serve his village and his people.” More cheers. Everyone looked around for their hero.
He was nowhere in sight.