Kuda Kepang

by Fadzlishah Johanabas

Malik watched his bride as she cheered at the Kuda Kepang troupe performing in honor of their wedding. Nine men astride legless horse puppets woven from nipah palm leaves danced in choreographed silat martial art movements, with his brother Hassan leading them on a black-painted stallion. A middle-aged man, the Kuda Kepang master, stood beside four seated men playing gongs and percussions and snapped his leather whip. The dancers jumped and twirled mid-air. Another snap, they landed and stamped their feet as one, sending motes of earth flying in tan clouds. Both Malik and his wife kept their eyes on his brother as he reared, lunged, turned and jumped, his form and movements breathtaking. Faster and faster he danced, in time with the ever-increasing tempo of the musicians, never out of breath, never tiring.

Thunder rumbled from the direction of Gunung Ledang, the most prominent mountain in northern Johor. Storm clouds gathered on the horizon, and a blanket of mist wrapped itself around the base of the dark-green mountain. The thunders seemed to complement the beat of the gongs and percussions; it was as if the Mistress of Gunung Ledang herself blessed Malik’s wedding. He had dreamed of this day ever since he started courting Kemboja. Having her beside him, resplendent in her white wedding kebaya, clapping her slender hands as the dancers sparred with one another, he knew his life was truly blessed.

Malik traced Kemboja’s jaw line with the back of his finger, and the intimate gesture sent both of them blushing. If they had touched each other before the wedding, it was only by accident. They were both children of their culture, and throughout their courtship they had only exchanged polite words and gentle looks. He marveled at the smoothness of her skin, so different from his, rough and tanned. His touch was light; he dared not mar her delicate beauty with his calloused fingers and his sinewy limbs.

Abang, everyone is watching.” Kemboja’s blush deepened.

“We know all of the villagers, they’re practically family.”

“Yes, but—”

“I love you, you know?”

Kemboja turned away, but Malik caught her grinning.

The beat of the musical instruments wound down and the Kuda Kepang master snapped his whip. The performers arranged themselves in two rows. They set the puppet horses down and knelt before the newlyweds, their right hands raised before their foreheads, thumbs touching the point between their eyebrows. The audience applauded with enthusiasm; Kuda Kepang was a tradition during weddings around the region, and Malik’s village boasted the best performers.

Hassan stepped forward and wrapped Malik in a tight embrace. “I’m glad I talked you out of waiting for me to get married first.”

“You’ve got sweat on my best baju melayu!

Hassan laughed and ruffled Malik’s hair. “Little brother, I will miss having you under the same roof. Kemboja, welcome to the family.”

Before she could answer, pandemonium broke among the villagers eating at the long tables. Both Malik and Hassan stood up and craned their necks to find the source of the commotion. The rest of the dancers had already rushed to the long tables. They came back to the clearing carrying a man in torn, bloodied clothes. The village chief and other elders formed a ring around the fallen man and the two performers supporting him.

“What happened to you, young man?” the chief asked as he leaned forward, his thick white mustache bristling. “Someone, give him some water!”

“I came from Malacca.” The man’s voice was barely audible, and the crowd hushed to catch his words. “The Portuguese. Malacca has fallen, and they’re headed south.”

Kemboja buried her face on Malik’s chest and cried. He held on to her, but locked his eyes with his brother’s.

Melaka, the shining gem of Straits of Malacca, the pinnacle of trade and civilization on the Malay Peninsula, had fallen. And there was no stopping the invaders.

*

“I say we pack up what we can and head south to Temasek,” said one of the elders who had gathered at the village chief’s house. Loud murmurs followed his statement, and more than a few heads nodded.

“Our village is inland,” said another elder. “Maybe the Portuguese won’t come our way. We can’t just leave everything behind.”

A man about Malik’s age shot up and slammed his fist on the wooden wall. “Cowards. This is our land. We work the paddy fields. Our families are rooted here. We fight these invaders and chase them away from this country.” Most of the young men thumped the floor in assent.

The village chief chewed betel leaf and spat out the red pulp. He stroked his long mustache and looked around at the small gathering in his house. His gaze met Malik’s for a few moments, and Malik saw the sadness in the older man’s face.

“You are still young and foolish,” he finally said. “Didn’t you hear what the poor man said before he died? Those invaders have weapons we’ve never seen before, weapons that can kill from far, much stronger than the bows and arrows of the Javanese. How do we fight them? Using our short kris and rakes?”

None of the younger villagers dared to meet the chief’s piercing gaze. The packed house was subdued, and the only sound that filled the silence was the pitter-patter of late afternoon rain on the nipah roof.

“Now, we can wait it out and hope the invaders don’t come our way, or we can pack up and leave. All of you are free to choose whichever path you think is best for your family. I don’t see any other way to go about this.”

Hassan, sitting beside Malik, cleared his throat. “There may be another option.”

The chief chewed on another betel leaf. “Go on, Hassan.”

“We can seek help from the Mistress of Gunung Ledang.”

Everyone except for Malik laughed at this. Red spittle dribbled from the corner of the chief’s mouth. Even he laughed, when he was the most well-versed in the legends of Gunung Ledang among the villagers in the region.

“Myths. Nothing more. You are even more foolish than your neighbor over there, Hassan.”

“You know she exists. You’ve seen the herbs my late father brought back from the mountain to ease my mother’s suffering when she was dying from the blood cough, herbs that saved Malik and me. You heard him say the Mistress gave him the herbs. How can you forget that?”

The village chief wiped the spittle off his face. “I remember he had the blood cough too. He may have had a fever dream.”

Hassan turned to Malik, his dark eyes conveying his plea. “Little brother, surely you remember?”

“I was six, Hassan. I only remember Mak on her deathbed.”

The chief rose and squeezed Hassan’s shoulder. “Even if she does exist, I doubt the Mistress can help us.”

“Please, give me two days. That is all I’m asking. Give me a chance to seek her help.”

“No one ventures into the mountain alone, Hassan.”

Malik knew his brother’s eyes were on him, but he kept his gaze on the wooden planks of the floor. “I am sorry, brother. I am married now, I have to think about my wife’s safety.”

He heard the shuffle of Hassan’s baju melayu as he stood up, and the stomp of his feet as he stormed out of the chief’s house. Even then, Malik could not raise his face to look at his brother.

*

The sun had disappeared behind storm clouds, shadowing the land in an early dusk. Golden paddy stalks at the outskirts of the village danced in waves as winds howled from the east. Malik shielded his eyes from leaves and dust whipping past him. He had intended to catch up with Hassan, but his brother was nowhere in sight. Malik rushed home, hoping to find Hassan there.

With the help of Hassan and most of the villagers, Malik had built a new home beside his parents’ house. Made entirely out of wood, it stood on stilts, with freshly woven nipah leaves for a roof. Eventually the leaves would shrivel, leaving gaps that he would have to mend. The house was small, just enough for him and his wife, and a spare room for a child or two when the time came. The rooms would remain empty if they had to flee south. Suddenly Malik’s steps were leaden.

His parents’ house was dark and shuttered, with no evidence of Hassan inside. All the windows of his own home were also closed, save for one at the front. Kemboja, still in her white kebaya, stood in stark contrast against the gloom. She waved at him when their eyes met, and opened the door to let him in. Her fine brows were knotted, and the smile that greeted him was forced. Malik knew his expression mirrored hers.

“What happened, Abang? I saw Hassan rushing by—”

Malik’s body stiffened. “He came back to the house?”

“Just for a while. I saw him carrying a small pack, headed East.”

“Hassan, you stubborn—” Malik slammed his fist on the wall. When he realized what he had done, his face immediately softened. “I’m sorry, Kemboja. I don’t want to leave you, not on our wedding night, but I fear for Hassan’s safety. My brother intends to search for the Mistress of Gunung Ledang.”

With a sharp intake of breath, Kemboja turned toward the dark mountain range. With the gathering storm, it looked even more ominous. When she turned back to face him, Malik knew she supported his decision. She reached for his face, but pulled back, blushing.

“I have cooked dinner. I will pack it for the two of you to eat. Your machete is at the back of the cupboard in the—our—room. Go, before the distance between the two of you is too great.”

Malik took hold of her hands as she turned away, and kissed the tips of her fingers. “Thank you.”

This time, her smile was genuinely warm. “He is now my brother, too. He’s just as important to me as he is to you.”

“I need you to pack everything we can carry. We may have to flee south.”

The newlyweds stood still for an endless moment, both not daring to think about the future.

*

Whatever had driven Hassan to look for the Mistress of Gunung Ledang had lent him speed. Malik hobbled toward the jungle at the base of the mountain, his sight hampered by angry tears from the clouds, and his steps made treacherous by the muddy sluice between tall blades of grass. Malik followed a trail used by hunters and gatherers who occasionally ventured into the forest, and prayed that his brother had done the same. He had yet to cross paths with Hassan, and soon enough it would be too dark to see.

The jungle had no border, just a gradual increase in the density of trees and shrubs. As he traversed deeper, the canopy cover provided him with a slight respite from the storm. The jungle had no border, but when a sudden hush surrounded him, as if time had stilled, Malik knew he had stepped into the domain of the Mistress of Gunung Ledang. The shrill call of crickets and other insectswas still present, but somehow muted. His body shuddered involuntarily.

According to legends, the Mistress was a Javanese princess whose beauty was unparalleled. Sultan Mahmud of Malacca had lusted over her and sent his most trusted warrior, Hang Tuah, to ask for her hand in marriage. She had set seven impossible conditions, including trays filled with hearts of fleas and mosquitoes, and also the heart of the crown prince. When the Sultan discovered her heart had already belonged to Hang Tuah, he cursed her to never step foot outside Gunung Ledang.

Malik did not know if the legend had any shred of truth, but he had grown up hearing tales of men getting lost in the jungle and returned to safety after meeting a lone crone near the tip of the mountain. Not one of their sparse descriptions was ever the same. Even his late father had not talked much about the woman who had given him the curative herbs. Malik kept on glancing about with wild eyes, half expecting a bent old woman in shrouds standing on one of the gigantic roots.

“Little brother, what are you doing here?”

Malik whipped to the left and found Hassan leaning against the root of an ancient teak. He was equally drenched and shivering. “What were you thinking, coming here on your own?”

“No one else was willing to follow me.”

Even though there was no accusation in Hassan’s voice, his words still stung. Malik closed the distance between them and sat beside his brother. “I’m sorry, Hassan. I—”

“I’m the one who should ask for forgiveness. I asked for too much from a newly married man. How is Kemboja?”

“Concerned about you. She packed us some food.”

Hassan grinned at Malik. “I should get married, too.”

Malik did not share his brother’s mirth. “I don’t like this. The jungle feels—”

“Old. Very old.”

“Do you think the Mistress is real?”

“After the gift she had given to our family? How can you not believe in her?”

Malik picked up a twig and flicked it toward a puddle surrounded by rotting leaves. The hoots of lemurs pierced the dense silence and both of them looked up at the canopy. Malik shuddered again. “I don’t know what to believe in. I know we’re in danger, and at first light you’re going to follow me back. We’re going to pack what we can, and we’ll head south.”

Hassan rested his elbow on Malik’s shoulder. “Even if I want to, I can’t. I sprained my ankle.”

“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” Malik shuffled to face his brother and inspected his right ankle. Even in the dark he could see how red and swollen it was. “Can you walk at all?”

“What I need now is warmth. I am cold to my teeth.”

Malik set Hassan’s foot down gingerly and huddled close, hoping that the shared warmth of their bodies would be enough. After a while, Hassan’s spasmodic shivers subsided and he rested his head against Malik’s broader shoulder.

“Thank you, little brother.”

“We’re not out of danger yet. People say there are tigers in this jungle.”

“I meant for coming after me.”

“You’re the only family I have left.”

“You have Kemboja.”

“But I only have one brother.”

They sat in silence, listening to the muted chirps of crickets and the occasional caws of hornbills. Hassan took first watch, and well into the night, he nudged Malik awake and took his turn sleeping.

Malik had never been in the jungle at night, and the unfamiliar sounds intimidated him. He thought he heard a roar in the distance, but he stayed quiet and immobile, and let his exhausted brother get his much-needed rest. Once in a while he had to peel off leeches from his legs and staunched the bleeding using leaves he pulled from nearby saplings.

The chatter of nocturnal insects and monkeys had lulled Malik to sleep. He woke up to find slivers of morning light dancing through gaps between canopy leaves. Hassan was fast asleep beside him. Malik yawned and stood up to stretch his cramped limbs. His heart almost jumped out of his mouth when he saw a tiger lounging a few feet away. It was bigger than him, its coat of black and orange sleek. The tiger yawned, revealing sharp canines, and flicked its tail, but did not rise from its resting place. It showed disinterest, but Malik did not doubt the intelligence behind those yellow eyes. With painful slowness, Malik kicked his brother awake.

“Wha – why’d you do that?”

“Hassan,” Malik hissed, “tiger.”

Hassan sat straighter, fully alert, and whipped his head about until his saw the tiger. “There’s another one, to the right.” His voice was barely audible.

A woman’s voice, frail with age, sliced through the palpable tension. “You do not belong here. Go back whence you came.”

Before he could stop himself, Malik twisted backward just as Hassan shot his gaze upward. A bent crone in a moss-green robe stood precariously on the sloping root. A shawl of the same color and material covered most of her white head. Wrinkles were etched throughout her face, but her onyx eyes seemed ageless. She lifted one foot off the root.

Malik took a step forward. “Nenek, be careful.”

The old woman clicked her tongue. “You should be concerned for your own safety, not mine.” She stepped off the root and landed beside Hassan with a gentle shuffle of her robe.

Malik kept on glancing back and forth between the crone and the pair of tigers.

“They won’t harm you, boy.” She bent down at Hassan’s feet and lifted his right foot.

Hassan yelped and winced as she inspected the swollen ankle. In the morning light, the red-and-blue discoloration looked worse than it did the night before.

“Not broken,” she murmured more to herself. “You’ll mend soon enough.”

Hassan studied her with narrowed eyes. “Nenek, we are looking for the Mistress of this mountain.” Both of them did not know what else to call her other than grandmother.

“You do not belong here. Go away.” Her voice creaked like the boughs of the ancient trees.

“Please. She helped our father once, years ago. We need her help again.”

“Go away.”

Malik stepped forward but stopped when she hissed. “Please. We cannot fight the Portuguese without the Mistress’s help.”

“You cannot win even with help. Leave now, or you’ll never find your way out.”

Malik studied the old woman. She was not armed, but clearly the two young men did not intimidate her. “Nenek, you are the Mistress, aren’t you?”

She shuffled toward the reclining tigers and as she stepped into the shadows, the robe crumpled to the ground, empty. Malik and Hassan gasped and looked about, but the crone was nowhere to be found.

“Were you expecting someone younger?”

The brothers whirled back and saw a matronly woman in a form-fitting green kebaya standing on a fallen trunk between the tigers. Her face was smooth and fair with an olive hue, but her aquiline nose and ageless eyes remained the same. She wore her hair in a bun; strands of white graced her temples, contributing to her regal looks. She held a golden whip coiled in her hands.

“Mistress, forgive us. We sorely need your help.”

“The love of my life weeps in his grave knowing his beloved Melaka has perished. Because of him I still hold love for your people even though the Sultan’s ancestor had banished me here, never to step a foot beyond this mountain. I will help you, even though your country is doomed to fall in the hands of one invader after another. I will help you, even though you have no hope of winning.”

The trunk she stood on sank into the ground with barely a sound, and the tall woman stepped toward the still-gaping brothers. They straightened their crumpled, stained clothes and stood taller, and she graced them with a kind smile in return.

The Mistress of Gunung Ledang handed Hassan the whip. “You will know what to do with this.” Then she took out a heavy gold ring from her left little finger and wrapped Hassan’s fingers around it. “Use this only if all else fails. The ring’s boon is great, but its curse is greater. Your life will be forfeit.” She turned to look at Malik. “You, on the other hand, will be better off away from the fight. Your wife has yet to know her husband’s touch. There is no cowardice in placing your family first.”

The two brothers bowed low. When they looked up, the Mistress had vanished without a trace. They whispered their gratitude and headed home. The swelling on Hassan’s ankle had somehow subsided, and he managed to walk with only a slight limp. Much to their surprise, they found a wide animal trail that led them easily out of the mountain’s jungle.

They had hoped to return to the village as heroes. When they saw some of the villagers had already packed and were ready to move south, they hastened their pace even though they were sweating and breathless. Only the men acknowledged their arrival, even then with half-hearted nods. All eyes stayed on the brothers as they made their way to the chief’s house. Malik could clearly read their accusation and disappointment.

“Where is the Mistress’s army, Hassan, Malik?” The chief’s eyes held the same accusation as the others’. “Why have you returned so soon? Have you given up on your foolish errand?”

Hassan seemed oblivious to his remarks. He approached the chief and held aloft the golden whip. “The Mistress of Gunung Ledang has given us a boon.”

“A Kuda Kepang master’s whip? It saddens me to say this, for I held your late parents close to my heart, but you are out of your mind, Hassan.”

Malik rushed forward and knelt in front of the chief, then clasped the older man’s hand in his. “Please, we have never disappointed you before. We have never lied; we have never done any harm toward others, no matter how petty. I beg of you, please believe in us. We have seen the Mistress, and she extends her assistance the only way she can.”

The village chief sighed. “Go home to your wife. Rest. We still have time to decide tomorrow morning.”

Hassan whooped with joy and Malik stood up and embraced the chief. “That is all I hoped for. Thank you.”

When the brothers reached their home, Malik saw Kemboja waiting for him at the entrance, small and delicate like the flower she had been named after. The two brothers parted ways with a tired smile and a wave.

Kemboja bent down, took Malik’s right hand in hers, and kissed it. “Abang, I was worried for you.”

“I’m sorry the wedding didn’t go as we had hoped.”

“As long as you’re home safe, I’m thankful.” She moved to hug him, but stopped awkwardly and blushed.

Malik, equally at a loss, walked into their room and took off his filthy baju melayu. He was loosening his pants when he heard a soft gasp from behind.

Abang, you have cuts and bruises on your arms and back.” Kemboja reached out and gingerly touched the injured parts of his body, but the pain he expected never came. Instead, he felt warmth spread from the places her skin met his, down to his loins. He turned to face her, his breath heavy and uneven. He traced the contours of her face, her neck, and reached under her loose baju kurung.

Kemboja stiffened at first, but when his searching lips found hers, she surrendered completely.

*

Malik and Kemboja woke up to the relentless thumping on the front door. When they saw each other naked, their first instinct was to cover themselves, but seeing the sheets and their clothes strewn all across the floor, they both burst out laughing. Malik reached for a checkered sarong and secured it around his trim waist before answering the door.

He found Hassan standing on the narrow steps in front of the main entrance, his eyes wide with agitation.

“The invaders are here!”

Malik ran back to the room, where his wife was picking up their scattered clothes. “Kemboja, get dressed and bring along the stuff we’ve packed. We may have to run away.”

The three of them scrambled to the chief’s house, where the whole village had assembled. A tall man in a smart tan uniform and a three-pointed black hat towered before the chief, who seemed to shrink into himself. The man’s skin was so pale it was almost translucent, a shade Malik had never seen on anyone. He spoke in a rolling-tongue language that none of them understood, but when he pointed at the paddy fields, ripe and golden, swaying in waves with the morning breeze, Malik knew what he wanted. Judging from the horrified looks on most of the adult villagers’ faces, he knew they understood what the invader came for too.

Hassan nudged his elbow on Malik’s chest. “Look.”

Malik followed his brother’s line of sight and gasped aloud when he saw rows upon rows of the invaders not far from the village’s border, each holding upright long weapons of cylindrical metal and wood. They looked imposing in their uniforms and tall hats.

“No,” he heard one of the village elders say, “we’d rather burn our rice and paddies. Don’t agree to the invader’s demand.”

The chief held both hands up to his chest level. “Wait. We need to discuss first.” As he talked, he pointed at the paddy field and at the villagers. Then he waved at the general direction of the soldiers.

Malik doubted the Portuguese man understood a word the chief said, but he nodded sharply and marched back to his men.

The chief let out an explosive sigh and turned back to look at the villagers. “If anyone needs to run away, do so now. Use the back route. Hassan, I pray your plan works.”

Hassan gave Malik a tight embrace. “If things go wrong, I want you to promise me that you and Kemboja will run to Gunung Ledang. The Mistress will take care of you.”

“I want to fight with you.”

“Little brother, you have a chance at building a family. Don’t throw it away.”

Malik hugged his brother tighter and kissed his forehead. Hassan grinned and ruffled Malik’s hair before trotting to the Kuda Kepang master. He still favored his right foot. He gave the older man the golden whip, and straddled his black stallion puppet. Fourteen other men took their places around Hassan, the tan puppets upright between their thighs. The wavy curves of forearm-length kris blades gleamed in the men’s right hands.

The musicians began to play their instruments, discordant and unsure at first, but years of experience gradually steadied their hands. The master uncoiled the whip and snapped it in the air. Tiny arcs of lightning crackled at the tip of the whip and spread along its length. He snapped the whip again.

The music began to reverberate with an ethereal quality, and the puppet riders performed their opening moves in unison. They stamped their feet, and the ground trembled. They danced, their steps familiar and alien at the same time. The tempo picked up, and they moved faster.

Then they took to the air.

The whole village gasped as the men, eyes glazed as if in a trance, rose higher and higher with each crack of the golden whip. Led by Hassan and his black stallion, the Kuda Kepang riders sped toward the equally shocked invaders. The soldiers’ ranks broke in the ensuing panic and confusion, and the riders dived, seemingly at random, and drew blood.

Screams of outrage and panic filled the air, and one man after another fell to the ground, clutching futilely at their open wounds. Blood spurted everywhere, and soon the earth was slick and stained red. The villagers cheered at this miracle; not one of them doubted the existence of the Mistress of Gunung Ledang any longer.

Then they heard distant explosions from the invading army. Black smoke curled from the tips of the long weapons. One of the puppet riders plummeted to the ground. He didn’t even scream. The officers gradually restored order and the invading army soon formed their ranks again. They aimed and shot in unison now. The airborne riders weaved the air with unearthly grace, and escaped the shots, but the army was relentless. One more rider fell to the ground.

To the villagers’ horror, more riders fell to their deaths, and Malik counted only seven riders, including Hassan. The invaders were still strong in numbers, with over fifty men standing and shooting.

Some of the villagers sneaked away to escape the losing battle. The Portuguese army kept on shooting, and because Malik kept his eyes on his brother, he saw the shot that hit his right shoulder.

“Call them back! Call them back, now!”

The team master looked at the chief for confirmation. The older man shook his head and hung it low. “They will attack us if we call the riders back.”

“Then call Hassan. There is something else the Mistress gave him.”

The whip snapped the air again, and the black puppet sped back toward them. Hassan landed before the master and collapsed on the ground. His shoulder was bleeding, but his breaths were even, if somewhat ragged.

Malik rushed to his brother and tapped his cheeks to wake him up from the trance. Kemboja knelt opposite him and staunched his bleeding with pieces of unused clothing. Hassan came to with a shudder, and groaned in pain.

“Where is the ring? Hassan, where is it?”

Using his left hand, Hassan fished the heavy ring out of his pocket. He fumbled to put it on, but Malik grabbed it from him.

Hassan’s eyes widened in horror. “Little brother, no! You have a wife. You promised to take care of your family.”

“You’re in no condition to fight.”

“I will not let you do this.”

Kemboja looked at Malik, then at Hassan, and back to her husband. “What are you talking about?”

Malik’s heart broke at the panic in her voice. “I am placing my family first. Kemboja is my family. You are my family. The villagers are my family. I need to do this, for all of us.”

Abang, please don’t.” Kemboja held on to Malik’s hands, stopping him from putting on the ring.

“Little brother, the Mistress gave the ring to me. Don’t do this, please.” Hassan’s voice broke, but he released his grip on Malik’s forearm.

Malik reached out and kissed Kemboja. “I love you both. Always remember that.”

Quick as lightning, Malik put on the ring on his little finger and grabbed hold of the black stallion. He straddled the puppet, and stamped his feet on the ground.

The master cracked his whip.

Malik charged forward.

Instead of taking the air, Malik’s form blurred and grew. Within seconds, a gigantic stallion took his place, black as the deepest night; its mane, tail and hooves were made of dancing orange and red flame. A blaze trailed its path, and its sleek, sinewy body gleamed from the fiery glow and from sunlight. The stallion charged straight toward the invading army, and shots aimed straight at its chest did not slow its stampede.

The stallion kicked, bit, trampled and burned the terrified army. Chaos reigned; even the officers ran away, screaming. But no matter how fast they ran, they could not escape the stallion’s wrath.

Within minutes the screams of the Portuguese died with them. More than a few of the villagers gagged and vomited from the stench of blood, feces, and charred remains. The stallion neighed and stamped its hooves on the ground, and looked straight at Kemboja and Hassan. It neighed again and shimmered, as if a mirage, and disappeared.

Kemboja dropped her belongings and ran straight to the spot where the stallion vanished. Hassan limped behind.

Abang, Abang!”

Absolute silence answered her.

When she reached the middle of the battlefield, she did not find her husband, but a black stallion puppet lying on a wide, circular patch of grass, untouched by the death and destruction surrounding it. It was intricately woven with fine horse hair, and streaks of red and gold formed its mane and tail. Kemboja clutched the silent Kuda Kepang and cried.

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