This story was written for your request for a fic with a Filipino heroine and Filipino Martial Arts, and also for a fic involving Philippine mythology, since the characters are based on an existing legend. I think you might recognize a certain bit in the end here, since it was actually inspired by a Twitter fic you posted on your website. I really thought it was such a cool concept when I read it, and as I was writing this story, it just somehow fit.
I apologize for any inaccuracies in the techniques, by the way, since I only have a semester's worth of knowledge in basic arnis, ahaha. I'd be happy to edit the fight scenes, if so.
Anyway, hope you enjoy the story! Happy New Year too!
A Dance under the Moonlight
for Alli Sana
Night had fallen, and they were trapped.
Rajah Baguinda knew that whatever path he chose now would lead to death. The alamatan had warned him of the cunning of the pale-faced soldiers that had attacked his kingdom, but he had not imagined them capable of such treachery. They had attacked him relentlessly, cutting him off from the rest of his men. They drove him off the path and into a small cave. He was distracted, busy pushing back their attack, that he did not notice that the soldiers did not aim at him with their weapons of fire, but instead kept hitting the roof of the cave. He only realized what was happening when the rocks above his head started tumbling down towards him.
He would have been crushed under the rocks if it were not for the quick thinking of one of his warriors, Tonina. She had cut her way through the soldiers attacking him, and when she saw the rocks fall, she pushed him deeper into the cave and out of harm's way.
But when the dust had cleared and he had recovered enough to assess their situation, he realized he might as well have died in the cave in, for all the good surviving it had done him. The cave in blocked the only way out. They could try to dig their way out, but the enemy would then be upon them in an instant, and he now had no way of defending himself. He had lost his weapons in the heat of the battle: his kris was broken in half by one of the soldiers, and his daggers were left buried in the bodies of several other soldiers who had jumped him. But if they did not get out of the cave they would die anyway of starvation, and besides his men were out there, fighting for the kingdom.
He looked at his companion. Her clothes were stained with the blood of the soldiers she had killed, mixing with her own. At her feet lay the only weapons she now had left, her sword along with two wooden sticks, both little more than a foot long.
Yet there was no trace of fear on her face.
He watched as she picked up some rocks from the floor of the cave, setting them down into a pile she had created at the end of the path.
"What—" He swallowed before continuing, for his voice had grown hoarse from the excitement of the battle. "What are you doing?"
"Keeping us alive, Rajah," she said. "Because I very well can't let you do it by yourself."
"You have a plan?" Baguinda said.
"I thought that was already obvious."
He let her sarcasm slide without comment, for he was long used to it by now. "What is it?"
"Do you think you can move that big rock over there?" She pointed to the boulder at the center of the rocks blocking the entrance.
"Well, I can try to dig a way out of here. But the soldiers would be waiting outside—"
"No, not dig our way out," she said, looking up at him gravely. "I mean push that rock."
"I think I'm strong enough, but I do not think that will accomplish anything," he said, shaking his head. "I can only push it slowly, and the soldiers waiting outside would be ready when we come out. Did you see their weapons? They can shoot fire from them. We would be dead before we can even get near them—"
"Leave them to me, Rajah."
"All right. But what will I attack them with? Pound them with my fists and choke the breath out of them with my bare hands?" He laughed mirthlessly.
"Well," she said with a tilt of her head, "you can have my sword."
He raised an eyebrow at her. "And what will you use?"
"These, of course," she gestured toward her sticks.
He opened his mouth to object when the words died away in his throat. He nodded, and took the sword from the floor.
He did not dare say anything about those sticks of hers, much less make fun of them. Just the morning before they had set out to meet their strange conquerors, one of his men, Indarapatra, paid dearly for doing so. Not with his life or limb, but something of much more value than that—his dignity.
"What are you going to do in the middle of the battlefield?" Indarapatra had teased her when he had seen her tucking the sticks into the belt she had put around her trousers. "Practice? This is real war, my dear Potri. You can practice your sword skills on those soldiers anytime you want. No need for sticks that won't kill anyone—"
"Potri?" Tonina said. Her voice had gone dangerously low. "I am not one, so if you please, stop calling me one."
"Indarapatra," Baguinda said. "Stop that." He stepped toward them. He glanced at Tonina and saw that being called Potri ruffled her usual composure. It was a mockery, for even though she wore men's clothes and was every bit as good as his warriors, some of them still thought her beneath them, a mere woman. "Forgive him, Tonina," he said, turning towards her. "He's new, so—"
"It's hardly an excuse," she said, "for such ignorance."
"Ignorance?" Indarapatra said. He pushed Baguinda aside and glared at Tonina, who was already walking away. He drew his sword. "Come back here! Who do you think you are, woman, to—"
Baguinda thought briefly if he should stop them, but instead he shrugged and crossed his arms. He smiled slightly, for he knew what was about to come.
Tonina whirled around. She hit Indarapatra's right shoulder with one of her sticks, and as he cried out in pain she hit his right wrist with the other stick, making him let go of his sword. As he raised his hand to ward off her attack, she directed the other stick toward his left temple. He could do nothing more than close his eyes against her attack.
It never came. The stick stopped a mere inch from his temple, and she smiled at him. "If I had hit you here hard enough, you would be dead by now."
"I—" Indarapatra swallowed as he turned to look at the stick, still hovering near his head. "I don't believe you."
"Really?" She laughed, and it was an easy laugh, neither mocking nor condescending. "Would you like to bet your life on it?"
He sat beside her now and sighed. "Tonina," he said. "I am glad that I have fought with you. It was an honor, as there is no other woman in the kingdom like y—"
"What are you saying, Rajah?" she said. She shook her head. "Please be serious. It does not suit you when you are joking, since you really are not as funny as you think—"
"I am not joking," he interjected, annoyed. "And I really am grateful to have met you, now that we are nearing what might be the end. And I just wanted to tell you that—wait, you don't find my jokes are funny? But they always made you smile, and at one time you even laughed so hard tears came out of your nose—"
"I did not say that your jokes do not make me laugh," she said with a small smile. "I only said that they were not funny."
"That hurts, you know. A lot."
Tonina's smile grew a bit wider. She stepped back from the pile of rocks she had made, which had now reached up to her knees. "Well, I guess this will do."
Baguinda furrowed his eyebrows. "So what do we do now? Do I push that big rock?"
"No. We wait."
"Wait for what?"
She did not answer for several seconds. She placed a hand on her sticks, her eyes pensive.
"Do you remember when we first met, Rajah?"
Of course he remembered. How could he forget? It was on a night of the full moon, and to give his men a rest from the rigors of their training, he had proposed a game of sipa.
While they were playing he had spotted a young man watching them from afar, near the palace gates. He was dressed like the folk in the barrios outside the palace, and but his clothes hung loose on his body, as if they did not really belong to him. Baguinda thought that he was one of the new apprentices in the palace, so he called him over. But the young man shook his head and did not approach.
Behind Baguinda, one of his men kicked the manguis too far, and it flew over to the young man. Before any of them could even call out a warning, the young man jumped and circled in the air, kicking the manguis back towards them.
The manguis all flew past their heads, and landed on the ground, shaking up dust and earth. No one stopped to pick it up from the ground, and they all stood staring at the young man, open-mouthed. No one—not even Baguinda himself—could move that fast.
"That was amazing," Baguinda said. "Would you care to join us? Tell me your name, young man! Are you one of the new apprentices from the neighboring villages?"
The young man did not answer. Baguinda took a step forward, but the young man only turned and jumped over the palace gates.
Baguinda jumped over the gates and chased after the young man, who had fled toward the forest. Baguinda was a fast runner, but the young man was far too nimble, and seemed to be used to the woods, for while Baguinda stumbled over tree roots and rocks that littered the forest floor, the young man merely stepped over them nimbly, without even pausing for breath.
"I only want to speak to you!" Baguinda called out. "I do not mean you any harm! We can use a warrior with your skill on our side!"
The young man only kept running.
Baguinda's temper flared. He shouted, "I order you to stop!"
After a few more seconds, the young man did slow to a stop, but did not turn around to face Baguinda. "Good," Baguinda said. "Now listen, who—"
A rock flew toward his head.
He ducked, shouting. "What in the—" He cursed and stood up rapidly, drawing his sword. "D-do you know who I am?" he spluttered. "I am the Rajah! How dare you—"
"It does not matter who you are," the young man said. The young man's voice was higher in register, and Baguinda surmised that he must be really young indeed, fresh on the threshold of adulthood, perhaps. "I cannot speak with you. Please, will you just leave me alone?"
But Baguinda was far too angry now to just let it go. "I see now!" he shouted. "You are a spy! Give me the name of the man who sent you, and I will spare your life. Is it Mangubat? He has long lusted for my kingdom and—"
"I am not a spy," the young man said. He held up his hands.
"Then why were you at the palace?"
The young man looked down at the ground, and his cheeks turned slightly pink. "I was merely curious."
"Curious? Do you think I will believe such a silly lie?" He tightened his grip on his sword and dagger. "Draw your sword and fight me like a man! I have no respect for cowards who send spies to his enemy. A real war is fought on the battlefield! Fight me now!"
The young man bit his lip and only stood looking at him.
"Afraid now, aren't you?" Baguinda challenged him. "Begging won't save you now. Draw your sword!"
The young man sighed and drew from his belt two wooden sticks.
"Sticks?" Baguinda snorted.
"You are making a mistake," he said. There was a note of regret in his voice. "Why can't you just listen? Are all Rajahs like this? Or is this something all men share?"
"Enough talk," Baguinda growled. He lunged towards the young man, who raised one stick to block the attack. Baguinda had expected the sword to cut the stick in half, but it held firm, and his sword did not even leave a mark upon it. He attacked the young man again with his dagger, but the same thing happened.
"They say persistence is a virtue," the young man said as they continued to trade blows. Baguinda swung his sword toward the young man's head, which the young man deftly parried while directing a swing at Baguinda's abdomen with the other stick. Baguinda was able to evade his attack by mere inches. "But this isn't persistence, Rajah. Just foolishness."
"Will you please just shut up?" Baguinda snapped.
The young man crouched low just as Baguinda aimed again for his head. The young men then directed a blow on Baguinda's right knee. With a groan, the Rajah sank to the ground. In desperation he lifted his sword up to meet the young man's attack.
At that moment the moon came out of the clouds and shone on the young man's face. His headdress fell off, and his hair tumbled down his shoulders, down to his feet.
Just as the wooden stick struck his sword, Baguinda gasped, unable to believe his eyes—
"I knew you were impulsive and maybe more than a little bit foolish," Tonina cut into his thoughts. "But I did not know that you were forgetful as well."
"I did not forget," Baguinda said peevishly. "I was just…remembering."
"Oh," Tonina said. "Then you now understand?"
"Why we must wait for moonrise," Tonina said slowly, as if she was talking to a child.
"You do not have to be so smug about it," Baguinda muttered. "Yes. I get it."
The moments passed in silence, but Baguinda could not keep still. Outside he heard the sounds of stirring, as the enemy waited, like a predator patiently waiting for his prey. He glanced at Tonina again, who looked as calm as ever, her eyes bright with excitement, as if they were not fighting a battle but just playing sipa again in the palace.
When he saw that she was a woman, he finally recognized her. He had seen her once, in the house of an old woman named Babo Kabayan, where he and his men had once stopped for a drink at her well. He then refused to fight her, but this only irritated her. She told him to keep fighting, that just because she was a woman, it was no reason for them to stop fighting. But he held firm, and he gave her an offer: that he will allow her to continue to come to the palace, if she would train as one of the warriors. Eventually she relented, and an adept warrior she certainly proved to be.
And then the white-faced soldiers from beyond the sea waged war in his kingdom, and Baguinda had no choice but to fight to protect his people. She insisted on fighting with him, and he had gladly acquiesced, for she really was one of the best warriors he had in his kingdom.
Or was that the only reason?
He thought on that for a moment, regarding her. Despite the many wounds she had from the day's battle and the scars she had from her training, he still found her beautiful, like that day he had first seen a glimpse of her at the well. Her headdress had fallen off again now, and her hair lay loose around her shoulders, kept in place by a part of her sleeve she had torn off. He suddenly wanted to wrap his arms around her, but she probably would kill him first before he could even lay a finger on her, so he pushed those feelings away.
Maybe what he felt for her was something more than respect and admiration for her prowess. Maybe, if they survived the war, he could ask her something that he had always longed to ask her—
She got up and put a hand out, right underneath a small space in between the rocks. Her hand lit up. The dust on her hands shimmered, like her hands were covered in tiny crystals.
"It is time, Rajah," she said.
He got up and grinned at her. He reached out for her hand and held it in his, firmly. She glanced at him, puzzled, but did not let go.
"Push the stone now," she only said.
He took a deep breath, let her go, and heaved at the rock. After what seemed like a lifetime it fell to the ground with a heavy thud, shaking up the earth beneath it, releasing a dense cloud of earth and dust. There was the sound of coughing from outside. Tonina then kicked at the rocks on her pile one after another, her feet blurring with the rapidity of her movement.
The cloud of dust had been so thick that the soldiers outside did not even see the rocks that rained down on them, knocking the guns from their hands, making their shots go wide. Tonina did not stop, however, and kept kicking at the rocks, hitting the soldiers on their heads and arms. Baguinda gave them no time to recover as well as he lunged at them, slicing at their arms and hands, so they could no longer use their guns. Tonina kept up her barrage of rocks, and together they managed to clear a path of escape.
He looked back at Tonina. When she ran out of rocks she ran towards him, her sticks in her hand. He was about to turn back to the enemies he was fighting, when he saw a figure sneak out from behind her, holding a gun in his hand, aimed at her back. Her attention was directed towards enemies in front of her. She did not stand a chance.
He grabbed one of the soldiers' weapons from the ground and threw it at Tonina's attacker—
At the same time Tonina lunged at him.
He remembered the night of their first meeting, how she stood in the moonlight, her hair tumbling down in waves across her shoulders, her eyes shining brighter than the stars in the evening. He had swung his sword up to meet her attack, but it broke apart in his hands.
The sticks she wielded sliced through the air, toward his head—
The two ends of the sticks changed into blades as moonlight fell upon them, and sliced through flesh. There was a strangled, gurgling cry behind him, and a soldier behind Baguinda fell to the ground, clutching uselessly at his neck, which was streaming blood.
Baguinda and Tonina stood staring at each other.
And they burst out laughing.
Tonina had refused to tell him the secret of her wooden sticks before. Then it wouldn't be a secret now, would it, Rajah? She only that it had come from real father, and it was proof of her birthright. She did not wish to speak more of it, and he had respected her silence, for it did not change the way he felt about her.
Tonina continued to slash through their enemies, her movements smooth and graceful, and he tried his best to keep up with her. Under the moonlight they danced; danced for their honor, and for their freedom.
There was a cry from the woods before them, and Baguinda's men burst through the mass of soldiers attacking them. Indarapatra grinned at Baguinda and tilted his head toward Tonina, in sincere deference this time, before he jumped into the fight.
The battle was over minutes later.
Later, just as the sun was beginning to rise, Baguinda went looking for Tonina. He found in her in her tent. She was treating her own wounds—she had refused to be seen by the healers—and was just finished applying some salve on her right thigh. She looked up at him when he came in, and smiled slightly, as always.
"I have good news," Baguinda said, flushing a little as he kept his gaze on the ground, willing himself not to look at the part of her flesh that she had left exposed. "The soldiers fled in their ships."
She glanced up at him rapidly. "Did you send someone to go after them?"
"No," Baguinda said. "Indarapatra wanted to pursue them, but I told him not to, not until we have more information on the enemy. Tomorrow I will talk to the alamatan again." He frowned. "What? Did I do something wrong?"
"No," Tonina said. "I am actually relieved." She sighed. "That was a good decision, Rajah, for once. I think there's hope for you yet."
"I always marvel at how you can compliment and insult me at the same time," Baguinda grumbled.
"It's really very entertaining," Tonina said. "You should try it sometime." She finished bandaging her wounds. "Well, I guess we can rest now, at least for a little while? Of course, the soldiers will be back, but for the moment, I am too tired to even think about them." She stood up and smiled at him. "I wanted to thank you, by the way."
"Likewise," Baguinda said, bowing his head slightly at her. "Tonina, you have been a valuable ally in our battles. And—and more—"
The puzzled expression again appeared on her face.
"What—what I'm saying is," Baguinda said, looking at the floor, then the ceiling, then at his hands, anywhere but at her face. "Please, even when this is over, even when my kingdom is at peace I—" He took a deep breath before continuing, feeling as if he was plunging into the unknown depths of the ocean. "I would still like you by my side."
Tonina was silent, and Baguinda could not guess what she was thinking, so he spoke again to fill the silence.
"I—I mean," he stammered, "you are one of the best warriors I know, but that is not the only reason. In the short space of time that I have known you, you have become so much more important to me than—"
"And there really is no other woman like you. You saved me, and helped me save my kingdom. I—I mean, yes, you did try to kill me once, and you can be really condescending and insulting at times, but I—"
"Rajah, shut up before you say something that will really make me kill you," Tonina said pleasantly. "I accept your hand in marriage, Baguinda."
"R-really?" Baguinda stood blinking at her.
"Wait, is it not supposed to be the other way around? Since I'm asking for your hand in marriage I'm the one who's supposed to accept…"
His voice trailed off as he saw the expression on her face.
"Ah. This is one of those times when silence is best, right?"
He sat down beside her, and his fingers interlaced with hers. She put her head on his shoulder, and he sighed and held her in his arms.
The pale-faced soldiers will be back, he knew. They might have won now, but something told him that will be other battles, and this feeling of peace that had now settled on him would not last long.
But for now, he was happy, and he allowed himself to fall asleep beside her, holding her, dreaming dreams of peace, of joy, and of dancing freely and without a care in the world, under the moonlight.