He inspected the plant more closely, and he noticed that a tiny stem at the center had been cut. The stem was still oozing with fresh purple sap. He realized that someone had reached the peak ahead of him and picked the flower.
He heard footsteps on the grass, and when he turned his head, he saw Indirapatra, bleeding profusely from the wound in his arm and chest. The knees of the older datu gave in, and he fell to his side near Sulayman. His palm opened, and a purple flower slipped to the ground.
Sulayman sneered in disbelief. “This isn’t happening. You’re weak. How did you survive?”
“I may not appear as strong as you are,” Indirapatra said, “but I’m not weak. In fact, because of what you did, I found out I’m as strong as you, maybe even stronger.”
“I don’t believe you. You’re not stronger. You just deceived me. Tell me, Indirapatra. What did you do? Before we went up here, did you make a deal with a demon to help you get through the traps?”
“Don’t accuse me of doing such things, Sulayman. I got here on my own strength and skills.”
“How did you get through the crocodiles? Uncle has never taught you how to fight them. It’s only me whom he taught. Whenever you are with Father learning about statecraft and other worthless matters, Uncle would take me to the jungle and teach me how to capture and kill beasts.”
“Father taught me a lot more than you thought. He taught me a few things about crocodiles—not enough to capture the giant intruder in the lake at home, but enough for me to get through the medium-sized ones here in the mountain.”
“I shouldn’t be surprised. In Father’s eyes, you’re the only son he has.”
“That’s not true, Sulayman. Father may be spending more time with me, but he thinks of you as much as he does of me.”
“He hasn’t taught me a thing!” Sulayman retorted.
“That’s because you don’t want to learn how to run the sultanate. You would rather seek out new adventures. As to fighting skills, it’s Uncle’s task to train us. Father had no intention of teaching me additional self-defense techniques, but he knew what uncle is doing to us. Uncle trains you more and praises you, while he always points out my weaknesses. Uncle wants you to be the better fighter. He wants you to feel that you deserve the crown more than I do.”
Sulayman smiled bitterly. “And now it turns out you’re stronger than me. You’re better than me in everything.”
“No, Sulayman. I might have arrived here ahead of you, but I’m in a far worse condition. I’ve lost too much blood. I can no longer make it down the mountain. Take the flower.”
Sulayman stared at his brother in surprise.
“Before we left the palace,” Indirapatra said, “Father told me that uncle wants the crown for himself. He wants father and the two of us dead. Uncle believed that neither of us could survive the mountain alone. But he underestimated us, or he underestimated himself. He didn’t know what we are capable of. I got through the first seven traps, unlike what he expected, and I’m sure you will get through all fourteen. Take the flower to Father and be his successor. You deserve the crown as much as I do.”
Sulayman shook his head. “If the other traps are as dangerous as we’ve passed, I won’t make it, too. I can’t even stand.”
“I think it’s the stake. You can’t get up because it’s too heavy, not because it has damaged your muscles. I’ll help you pull it out of your leg. I’ll use all my remaining strength.”
“It’s not the only one,” Sulayman said. He rolled on his side, groaning in pain, and Indirapatra found out that another stake had pierced Sulayman at the back. “I won’t make it.”
Indirapatra was filled with fear for his brother.
“It’s all my fault,” the younger datu said. “I let my envy and anger get the better of me. Now we will both die here, and Father too. Uncle will succeed in claiming the throne. I’m such a fool.”
“Don’t blame yourself, Sulayman. Uncle poisoned your mind. He deceived all of us. But he has not succeeded yet. It’s not too late. You can still go back home.”
“You’ve seen the stakes, my wounds. How can—”
“Take the flower. Crush it with your hand and drink the juice. Your wounds will heal in no time.”
“What about Father?”
“Father is old. He has accepted his fate. That’s why he didn’t want us to climb this mountain. Aside from the fact that he sensed Uncle was up to something, father didn’t want to be cured. He told me he’s done a lot for the people and he’s certain we could rule the land well when he’s gone. I only yielded to come up here because I was worried for you. I knew you were eager to test yourself against the traps, and you wouldn’t believe me if I’d tell you Uncle’s evil scheme.”
“Then it’s you who should take the flower, Indirapatra. It’s yours, in the first place. You picked it. And you’re the rightful heir to the throne.”
“No, Sulayman. It’s my responsibility to make sure you go back home safe.”
Sulayman was not able to hold back his tears. “I am so sorry, my brother.”
With weak hands, Indirapatra took the waling-waling and placed it on Sulayman’s hand.
SULAYMAN grinned at the rajah. “Why do you look like that, Uncle? Aren’t you glad to see me?”
“No, no, my nephew,” the rajah said, wrapping his arms around Sulayman. “I’m just surprised. Your return has been delayed for almost a week. I thought something not good happened to you.”
“Why would you think that, Uncle? You have taught me so well. Now, do you want to know if your plan succeeded?”
The rajah’s face lit up. “Oh yes, of course. How did it go? Did you leave Indirapatra behind?”
“I did everything you told me, Uncle. Indirapatra is where he should be right now. We have a big problem, though. You underestimated the dangers of the traps. I was fatally wounded, so I had to use the waling-waling on myself. I’ve brought no cure for Father. When he dies and I succeed him, the people will hate me. They won’t love a selfish ruler, a ruler who saved himself and let his father and brother die.”
“Does it matter, Sulayman? What’s important is you’re the sultan.”
Sulayman grinned. “Indeed. You are right, Uncle. Why should I worry? In fact, being feared might even work well for me. If people think I am so cold-blooded to let my father die, it will no longer hurt my image if I throw my uncle out of the palace, right?”
“What do you mean?” asked the rajah, stunned.
“I want you out of my sight, right now. Because I’m the only heir to the throne, I feel that you’re a serious threat to me. You might kill me so that you’ll take my place.”
“That’s ridiculous, Sulayman! I can never do that to you. You are like a son to me,” the rajah exclaimed indignantly.
The young datu feigned not to hear a thing. “You can take nothing with you but the clothes you’re wearing, and you can’t set foot in the sultanate again.”
“You can’t do this to me, Sulayman. I did everything for you!”
“You did everything for yourself!” Sulayman shot back. “You wanted all of us dead—my father, my brother, me.”
“That’s not true. What’s going on with you? I know it, a demon possessed you in Matutum. Let me help you, Sulayman. I can drive it away.”
“The demon is here in the palace, talking to me right now, trying to manipulate me again, and I’m driving it away!”
The young datu turned his back. “I know I can’t make you tell the truth, Uncle. You’re much too cunning. I’ll stop trying, then. I’ll spare you the humiliation of admitting how envious and greedy you are. Just leave the palace.”
“All right, my nephew. Do you want to hear the truth?”
As Sulayman was about to face his uncle, a large vase crashed on his head. The young datu dropped to the floor, and blood oozed from his skull. Dazed, he stared at his uncle.
“Yes, I wanted the crown ever since,” the rajah said, smirking. “I’ve tried so many times to kill your father, but my plans always failed. He’s much too strong and clever. But not clever enough to figure out that it’s me who’s been plotting against him. Or he might have suspected all along, but he wasn’t clever enough to catch me red-handed.”
The rajah held Sulayman by the hand and dragged him out of the palace, leaving a trail of blood on the pavement. The rajah continued talking. “Do you know what I’m going to do with you, my nephew? I’m going to throw you into the huge pit in the courtyard, where we are keeping the giant crocodile you captured in the lake.”
At the mouth of the pit, the rajah teased the crocodile with the limp figure of Sulayman. The crocodile thrashed and growled upon recognizing Sulayman, its captor.
The rajah smiled deviously. He moved to push Sulayman into the dark ditch, but before he could do it, he felt the cold tip of a kris against his neck. He moved his head carefully, and his eyes widened upon seeing Indirapatra.
“You should have left when my brother asked you to,” Indirapatra said. “If I were to decide, I would punish you with death, but I knew my father and my brother didn’t want you killed. So I asked Sulayman to go to you and convince you to leave while I went to the sultan’s chamber to give Father the waling-waling. But instead of being remorseful for what you’ve done to our family, you hurt my brother. Now I shall show you no mercy!”
The rajah swiftly moved back, drew his own sword, and pointed it against Indirapatra.
The young datu and the rajah dueled. Blade struck against blade, producing sparks. Before long, the older man proved to be the better swordsman. He had Indirapatra standing at the edge of the pit, the tip of the rajah’s kris pointing against the young datu’s chest. If Indirapatra moved backward so much as an inch, he would fall into the pit.
The rajah drew his kris toward himself, aiming to forcefully drive it into Indirapatra’s chest. His kris, however, was not able to strike back. It dropped to the ground with his severed forearm.
“Don’t you dare hurt my brother.”
The confounded rajah turned to the voice and saw Sulayman, standing and holding his own kris.
“I feel sorry for you, Uncle,” Sulayman said. “Father must have known that you’ve been plotting against him. He never caught you in the act not because he wasn’t clever enough. He just wanted to give you another chance, again and again. He didn’t have the heart to have you killed or just to banish you away from the sultanate—because you are his brother.”
The rajah stared in horror at Sulayman and Indirapatra. He fell to his knees in pain and desperation. He thought of retaliating one last time, and reached for his kris. The weapon, however, was sliding into the pit. Frantically he tried to snatch it, but he lost his balance and fell into the pit with the sword and his severed hand. The giant crocodile promptly caught and chewed him.
When the horrific screams stopped, Indirapatra and Sulayman stuck their weapons into the sheaths.
“Are you all right?” Indirapatra asked.
“Everything’s all right,” Sulayman said, but he felt dizzy and leaned forward.
Indirapatra held Sulayman steady. He then placed his brother’s arm around his shoulder and together they walked back to the palace. (End)
Jude Ortega hails from Sultan Kudarat Province. He was a fellow for fiction at the 20th Iligan National Writers Workshop in 2013, 28th Cornelio Faigao Memorial Annual Writers Workshop and Davao Writers Workshop in 2012.