In steel they saw the truth. For now, wooden sticks were a reasonable approximation.
Bayani jumped back, raising his baston to the guard. Rizal retreated too. Behind Rizal, Bayani saw a shadowed figure nod. A sheathed sword hung from the man’s loincloth. That had to be Maestro Alejandro. In the Circle, he was the only one allowed to carry a weapon.
Sweat rolled down Bayani’s forehead. Flickering torches threw shadows across the Circle. Drums beat and men chanted, but in this moment he heard only a wall of sound. Bayani’s wrist was sore, his palm raw, and he was losing sensation in his thumb. Before the Trial they trained for hours, and Bayani was sure his arm would soon give way. But Rizal had put all of himself into his strikes, and to respond with anything less than full strength was to court disaster.
“What’s wrong, Bayani?” Rizal yelled. “Too scared to fight?”
He was. Rizal was a beast with the sticks. Solo baston was his specialty, and Rizal’s weapon traced fluid, deceptive patterns faster than Bayani could track. Rizal circled to the right, and Bayani mirrored him.
“Of course not!” Bayani replied, finally. “Just giving you a chance to show off!”
Around the Circle, the men laughed. Even the healers at the side chuckled.
“How about this, then?”
Rizal leapt in, stick arcing down. Bayani covered up and sidestepped, deflecting the strike, and swung his baston at Rizal’s head.
They danced again, jockeying for a superior position. Once more Rizal leapt in, swinging at Bayani’s shoulder. Bayani drew his stick in, blocking the blow. Rizal’s stick ricocheted off the Bayani’s and swung around to his other side. Bayani flinched away, his weapon arcing around into a rising diagonal strike, going for Rizal’s hand.
Missed! Missed by a finger!
Bayani’s desperate counter had left him off-balance. He shifted his weight, re-grounding himself, holding out his arm for a moment.
Long enough for Rizal to crash in and catch Bayani’s wrist.
There was a counter to this, but in the heat of the moment Bayani’s mind blanked.
Rizal regained the initiative, kicking out. His foot touched Bayani’s thigh, just enough to shock Bayani out of his fugue. Bayani jumped away, twisting his wrist to break the hold, just as Rizal’s stick whizzed through where his head used to be. Bayani charged in, stick raised—
And doubled over, the air rushing out of him in a pained ooof.
Rizal must have hit him with a thrust. Bayani backed away, rubbing his sore gut.
“One to Rizal,” the Maestro called. “Footwork, Bayani, footwork! Have you learned nothing?”
Chastised, Bayani breathed through the pain and straightened. Rizal stopped his stick dance, using a moment to catch his breath. But as Bayani brought his guard up, Rizal jumped in with an overhead strike. Bayani stepped away, swinging for his hand—
Rizal lunged forward. Bayani flung himself back, deflecting the stick with his own. Once more they circled, this time counterclockwise, Bayani trying to go for Rizal’s left.
“You’ve got a long way to go, Bayani,” Rizal called. “You can’t touch me. You’re too young for the Trial!”
“I believe in you, Bayani!” a girl replied.
That was Perla. Apprenticing with the healers, she was here to watch the Trial. To watch him.
“Need a girl to fight for you?” Rizal taunted. “You can’t fight for yourself?”
Bayani drew a deep breath. “Since you insist—”
He charged, stick tracing a figure-eight. Not as fluid as Rizal, but it would serve as his sword and shield and he closed the distance.
Bayani accelerated, but too late he realized Rizal was just studying his patterns. Rizal closed in, going for Bayani’s centerline. Bayani brought the stick down on a new trajectory. Then Rizal stepped out, smacking Bayani’s stick arm back towards his chest with his live hand, and whipped his stick.
Pain exploded down Bayani’s arm. His hand sprung open, and his stick fell from his grasp. Rizal followed through, spinning around, wrenching Bayani into an armlock. Bayani cursed as a sharper pain needled his shoulder.
“Two for Rizal!” Alejandro called. “Bayani, I don’t see you fighting!”
Alejandro released Bayani. “I thought you were ready.”
Bayani massaged his wounded arm and picked up his baston. All the strength had fled his muscle and bone. His grip was weak. Almost nonexistent. One more blow and he would lose his weapon again. That would not do. Bayani winced, and transferred the baston to his left hand.
Rizal snickered. “Lost your arm? That’s okay, we can do this again next year!”
The boys reset their position, and the dance continued.
Bayani could not fighter harder. He had to fight smarter. Rizal was older, taller, stronger, with a longer and heavier stick. He had reach and skill, but he was paying the price for his theatrics. His was panting, his breaths coming in ragged spurts. And the torches weren’t evenly distributed around the ring. Maybe…
Rizal engaged. Bayani parried and jumped out, using the motion to wipe sweat from his forehead. Rizal closed again with a thrust. Bayani sidestepped, swatting the stick aside, but Rizal disengaged before Bayani could counterattack. Bayani circled to the right, Rizal followed, and when the torches were in Rizal’s eyes, Bayani hunched down, using Rizal’s body to partially block the firelight behind him.
Bayani charged in screaming, his stick raised high. Rizal snorted and answered with a thrust. At the last moment, Bayani diagonal-stepped away, the baston brushing past his skin, and snapped his stick down with both hands.
Rizal dropped. Bayani blinked.
Damn. I didn’t—did I—
“Healers!” Alejandro yelled.
Two women rushed forward, Perla trailing them with baskets of medicine. They laid Rizal out, and he moaned softly. Bayani exhaled, releasing the tension in his chest. The women rustled around the baskets, producing a bandage. They whispered instructions, and Perla wrapped Rizal’s head.
The Maestro materialized behind Bayani. “Ligaya, how is he?”
Ligaya was Perla’s mother.
“He took a bad blow to the temple. There’s some bleeding, and he’s out cold, but he’ll live.”
As Perla tied off the bandage, Ligaya drew a poultice from a basket and applied it to Rizal’s skull. The other healer opened a small vial of foul-smelling fluid, opening Rizal’s mouth and pouring it down his throat.
Rizal coughed. Groaned. His eyes fluttered, and he sat up. The healers gently lifted him to his feet and carried him away. Perla flashed a smile at Bayani and joined her teachers. His heart skipped a beat.
“I believe the rule was best three of five hits,” Alejandro said lightly. “The idea is to demonstrate knowledge of technique, not to injure your partner. Or to impress Perla.”
Bayani blushed. “Sorry, Maestro.”
Alejandro chuckled. “Rizal needed a smack anyway. I told him to reserve his strength, not his skill. He mixed it up. That whack should unscramble his brain. But no matter. Come with me.”
The Maestro led the boy to the edge of the Circle. Addressing the men, Alejandro said, “I declare that Bayani Otogan has won the Trial of Combat. Who here agrees?”
“OPO!” the men yelled.
“Does anyone disagree?”
“So be it! From this day forth, Bayani Otogan is a man and a warrior!”
The spectators cheered. Bayani grinned. The pain retreated from his arm, fading to a dull ache.
“As a warrior, he is entitled to and requires a weapon of his own.” The Maestro smartly extracted the scabbarded sword from his loincloth, and faced the new warrior. “Bayani, this ginunting belonged to your father. He died a warrior and a hero, protecting our friends from pirates. You have proven yourself your father’s son. You have earned the right to carry his sword.”
“Thank you, Maestro.”
“The blade is forged of sky-metal. It has tasted the blood of men and beast, and may not be used for a lesser purpose. Treat it well, and it will serve you as it had served your father.” The Maestro held out the weapon in both hands. “This sword is now yours. Draw it only in wisdom and in defense of the innocent, or not at all.”
“Thank you, Maestro.”
With a bow, Bayani accepted the sword. It was heavy, heavier than the rattan bastons that he had trained with his entire life, heavier than the baraw, the knife, he was used to carrying. It was an unimpressive weapon. The scabbard was made of plain wood, the sword’s curved grip worn smooth. But it was his now, and as he examined it the ginunting seemed to stare back into his soul. Bayani tucked the sword into his loincloth, carrying it at his hip.
Alejandro gripped Bayani’s shoulder. “Now your journey truly begins. Are you ready?”
“Good man. For now, we celebrate!”
The men erupted into cheers.
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