Indirapatra and his younger brother, Sulayman, reached the lakeside almost at the same time. The people cheered, but in a few moments, they became quiet when they found out that Sulayman’s boat was empty.
“This is surprising,” the rajah said, addressing both the crowd and his young nephews. “Datu Sulayman, the greatest hunter and fiercest warrior in the sultanate, came out empty-handed today.”
Instead of appearing ashamed, Sulayman stood in his boat with a smug look in his face. No one could guess what he was thinking.
The rajah turned to Indirapatra. “My nephew, kindly show your subjects what you have for them.”
Indirapatra nodded. He addressed the people. “It has been months now since a giant crocodile appeared in the lake and started attacking human beings, forcing our fishermen to stop working and causing shortage of fish supply. I assure you, though, that the chieftains, under the orders of my father, the sultan, are doing everything they can to have the monster killed or at least driven away. For the meantime, please accept the fish that my brother and I catch for all of you. For this day, here’s what my lucky net has snagged.”
Indirapatra jumped from his boat and tipped it over. The people gasped in surprise when a fish as long and large as the boat dropped on the sand. The fish was at least thirty feet long, easily the biggest ever caught from the lake.
“Hail, Datu Indirapatra,” the rajah said, “the future sultan!”
The people cheered. Then, they rushed to the giant fish.
“Please,” the rajah said. “There’s no need to fight over the catch. There’s enough of it for everybody.”
“And don’t you want to know what I’ve got for you?” Sulayman told the people.
Everyone’s eyes turned to the younger datu.
Sulayman smiled and jumped from his boat. He untied a rope from the rear of the vessel and pulled whatever it was on the other end of the rope. The water swelled, forming waves that splashed on the lakeshore.
“A much bigger fish,” some people said in excitement. “Bigger than what Datu Indirapatra has caught.”
When the creature on the other end of the rope was exposed, the people screamed and backed off in terror. It was the giant crocodile. But when they realized that the monster was firmly fettered, they cheered. At last, they could now have a peaceful and prosperous life again around the lake.
“Long live Datu Sulayman!” the rajah said, and the people seconded the praise.
Indirapatra came to his younger brother and congratulated him. “Thank you, my brother,” Indirapatra said. “What you’ve done is a great help to the people.”
“I didn’t do it for them,” Sulayman said. “I captured the crocodile because I’m sick of playing fisherman. I want a real adventure. Now, we can climb Mt. Matutum and find the waling-waling.”
“Yes. Now that we don’t have to worry about the crocodile, Father can no longer insist that we stay here near the lake and take care of the hungry villagers. But, brother, climbing Matutum is not a mere adventure. Remember that we’re doing it for Father. We need the waling-waling to cure his illness.”
“Of course, my brother. We’ll do it for Father.”
THE rajah smiled at Sulayman. “That was quite a performance, my nephew,” he said.
Sulayman grinned. “Your plan worked, Uncle. The people once again saw that I am better than my brother.”
“Alas, what you have done changes nothing,” the rajah said. “No matter how great your deeds are, you will never be sultan. Indirapatra is the firstborn, the next in line to the throne.”
Sulayman’s face became sullen.
“But don’t worry, my nephew,” the rajah continued. “I will help you, the truly deserving heir, take the crown.”
“How will that happen, Uncle? Indirapatra won’t give up his birthright. He once told me that though I am stronger than him, he is smarter.”
“If my next plan succeeds, no one will be able to say he’s smarter.”
“What are you going to do?”
“It’s you who’s going to do something. When you and your brother are halfway up Mt. Matutum, leave him behind. He won’t survive on his own, while you will be able to reach the peak and pick the flower of waling-waling. You will then return here a hero for bringing home the cure to your father’s illness. The people won’t mourn much the loss of your brother because they know you really deserve the crown more than he does.”
“But, Uncle, though I am stronger than Indirapatra, he is not exactly weak. Even if he doesn’t take the waling-waling, he will still be able to come back here, and he will remain the rightful heir to the throne.”
“You underestimate the dangers of Mt. Matutum, Sulayman. Scattered all over the mountain are twelve deadly traps. To reach the peak, one has to go through at least seven of the traps. The same way on the trip down. Only you are strong enough to accomplish such a feat. If left alone, Indirapatra will perish in the mountain.”
“I don’t want to kill Indirapatra.”
“You are not going to kill him. You will not stab him or anything. You will just leave him on his own. It’s not your fault if he can’t survive. If he can’t take care of himself, it only means he doesn’t deserve to be sultan.”
“Don’t you want to be sultan, Sulayman? There is no other way. Your brother is standing between you and the throne. You must get rid of him. And you have to do it in Mt. Matutum. It’s the best and may be the only opportunity you have.”
“I can’t do it.”
“All right,” the rajah said. “No one’s forcing you. It’s your choice, Sulayman. I’ve done everything I can to prepare you for the throne. You must either do your part now or put to waste my efforts. There’s nothing more I can do if you want to play second fiddle all your life. When your father passes away, I will serve the sultan, whoever he is. I will serve the sultan and no one else.”
Sulayman’s eyes were glazed with anxiety. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me, Uncle. I must see Father now. I have to bid him goodbye before Indirapatra and I leave for Matutum.”
“You can’t see him yet,” the rajah said.
“He’s still talking to Indirapatra, probably telling your brother things that he won’t tell you, counsels and secrets that only his successor deserves to know.”
indirapatra fell to his knees, panting, his right hand covering the wound in his left arm. He gritted his teeth as blood gushed out between his fingers. Beside him, Sulayman remained standing, unhurt and still vigorous, staring at the thick mist in front of them.
“The fourth trap,” Sulayman said. “I wonder what it is this time.”
Indirapatra ripped the hem of his vest and bandaged his wound with the piece of cloth. He told Sulayman, “Just four more traps, brother, and we’ll be at the peak.”
The mist slowly parted like a curtain, revealing a lake filled with floating slabs of rock. The nearest rock tilted up the air, showing the young datus’ a row of razor-sharp teeth. The other rocks followed suit. Indirapatra and Sulayman realized that they were not rocks.
“Crocodiles,” Sulayman said, more with awe than with fear. “A hundred crocodiles.”
Indirapatra rose to his feet and shook his head. “And we have to go through them,” he said. “I wish the traps were just tricks that could be solved by a cunning yet simple solution. We can just walk around the lake until we reach the opposite bank.”
“Unfortunately,” Sulayman said, “the traps are not riddles or puzzles. Each of them is a test of skills and strength. We have to fight these crocodiles. If we go around the lake, we will be likely lost in the mist and not find our way back here or to the next trap. Don’t worry, brother. I’ll go first so that the path will be easier for you.”
“No, Sulayman. We have to do it together. It’s much too dangerous for anyone to do it alone.”
“Brother, I’ve captured the largest crocodile anyone has ever seen. The creatures here are greater in number but much smaller in size. I can kill most, if not all, of them. Let me go first so that you won’t need to exert much effort. Your wound looks serious.”
“It’s not a very deep wound.”
“But the arrow that hit you must have been hexed or something. The bleeding hasn’t stopped or even just slowed. All that blood will only make the crocodiles hungrier and fiercer.”
“No, Sulayman. I can’t let you do more than what I do. I even have a greater responsibility than you do.”
“All right, I understand. You’re the future sultan and I am nothing. You have to be noble and I don’t.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“It’s what you have in mind.”
“You don’t know what’s in my mind, Sulayman. I was just saying that we have to do the task together. You can’t spend too much energy on this trap. There will be three more after this, and another seven on our way down. We have to help each other. It’s the only way to survive.”
“For you. Not for me.”
“Sulayman . . .”
“I can do it alone.” Sulayman rushed ahead, pulled one crocodile by the tail, and threw it at Indirapatra.
The crocodile hit the older datu, and reptile and man both rolled away from the lake.
Sulayman jumped to the back of another crocodile and, with his kris, fought his way across the lake. He killed or injured only as few crocodiles as he needed to reach the opposite bank. He was not trying to clear the way for his brother.
When his feet touched soil again, Sulayman looked back at his path. His kris had struck about two dozen crocodiles only. There were still more than seventy left for his brother to face
Indirapatra had followed Sulayman as soon as he could. He was now in the middle of the lake, struggling against the crocodiles. Sulayman watched him without any emotion. Suddenly, the future sultan fell into the water and disappeared. Sulayman moved on impulse to rescue his brother, but he retreated when he remembered what his uncle, the rajah said.
Indirapatra did not resurface even after a while. The crocodiles began to close their mouths and lazed still. When they started to doze off, Sulayman walked away, up to the next trap. He felt neither remorse nor happiness.
Sulayman grasped at the rocks and dragged his body. He grunted as searing pain shot through his left thigh, where a bronze stake had lodged.
He tried pulling out the stake, but it did not even budge. A spell must have made it much heavier than an ordinary metal.
The young datu crawled closer to the waling-waling. Just like what the rajah had said, the magical orchid glowed, distinct from the other plants around it. Its clustered leaves were swaying, as though dancing to soft music.
Sulayman brushed the leaves aside. They were supposed to be cradling a flower—purple, unequalled in beauty, requiring three years to bloom in full. To his shock, he could not find any.
The young datu thought that the flower must have been picked by an earlier expedition, but he remembered that the last successful quest for the waling-waling took place seven years ago. (to be continued)
Jude Ortega hails from Sultan Kudarat Province. He was a fellow for fiction at the 2012 Davao Writers Workshop.