Hunts lasted three days and three nights. As the newest warrior, Bayani had the honor and the burden of guiding the hunting party. The older ones followed him, judging his skills and dispensing advice. It was another trial, less formal but no less important.
Heading into the jungle, Bayani’s heart had swelled for all of a minute. But though he knew the trees as intimately as he knew his baston, for the first time his decisions would decide the fate of his village. The weight of responsibility deflated him immediately, almost crushing him, but he squared his shoulders and carried on.
Behind the hunters were the gatherers. These were the healers, the makers, the ones who took from the jungle and produced tools, medicine and trade goods. As the hours passed, Bayani realized he could not just look for animal sign. He had to look also for fruits and herbs, valuable woods and fungi, and mark them for the gatherers. It was too late for him to double back, revisit the grounds he knew to grow the tastiest bananas or the hardiest palm. All he could do was press forward.
On the first day they found nothing larger than insects. Most were mosquitoes, swarming exposed flesh. But they had also encountered grubs, larva and beetles. There was enough sustenance to continue the hunt, enough to power their muscles and keep them on their feet. Nowhere near enough to feed the children and their caretakers at home, much less conclude the hunt early.
The second day was barren. Bayani remembered that not too long ago, the jungle teemed with life. Rats and shrews and monkeys and birds and bats, and a few times he had seen tigers and elephants. Where had they gone? Or was he simply too inept, too unskilled, to read the signs they had left? He didn’t know, and didn’t dare ask.
In the afternoon, one of the hunters had spotted a flock of birds soaring through the trees. Drawing her bow, she loosed a volley of arrows into the air. But none struck home. For the rest of the day, they scoured the jungle floor for the arrows. Every arrow was a precious commodity; they had to trade with the lowlanders and city-dwellers for wrought iron, and the outsiders’ prices were dear.
Of her three arrows, the jungle had swallowed one, and the hunter cursed her failings in unladylike speech. During the evening meal, the gatherers shared their bounty: soursop and durians, mealworms and caterpillars. They did not go hungry that night, but they had nothing to provide for the village either. He wished the Maestro was here, but he was needed elsewhere and Bayani knew he could not rely on him forever.
On the third day, Bayani heard a high-pitched screech. Macaques. And where there were macaques, there was food fit for humans. Keeping his eyes and ears open, he stalked towards the source of the call. Creeping through the trees, the calls grew louder, more varied. He craned his neck, looking for the monkeys.
There. A large colony of macaques traversed the branches and the jungle floor, sharing food and grooming and chattering at the top of their lungs. Bayani’s heart seized up, and slowly relaxed. Taking calming breaths, he issued hand signals to the hunters behind him, lining them up in a row. He nocked an arrow and waited.
One by one, the hunters mimicked the calls of local birds, indicating they were ready. Drawing his bow, Bayani aimed at the closest macaque. This was a fine specimen, a male perched on a thick tree branch. It was an easy shot, not much further than the shots he took at the village. The monkey turned its head to face him. He inhaled. Exhaled half his breath. Uttered a bird cry. Loosed.
Bayani’s arrow brushed past the macaque’s shoulder.
The macaque howled, swinging down and dropping to the ground.
More arrows descended on the macaques. The survivors fled. Bayani hurriedly nocked another arrow and shot at a fleeing monkey. The missile slammed into a tree trunk. Uttering curses, Bayani reached for another arrow, loaded the bow, searched for more targets.
Bayani massaged his bruised arm, flexing his fingers and unknotting the stiffness that had betrayed him. Drawing knives, the hunters moved in to finish and dress their kills. Bayani paid the price of failure, stomping into the jungle alone to retrieve his arrows. By the time he returned, the sun was setting and the gatherers had caught up.
As the light faded, the hunting party claimed the macaques’ sustenance as their own. But the monkeys had picked the area clean well before the humans arrived. Bird nests were empty, their eggs cracked and consumed. Of the few fruits remaining most were unripe or rotten. There were still flowers and herbs, leaves and twigs, but the gatherers had warned the hunters from consuming them. Those plants were fit only for potions, poultices or poisons.
That evening, they had meat. Not by choice. The hunters had secured enough meat to feed the village for a full day, maybe more. The gatherers, however, had poor pickings: handfuls of insects, clumps of mushrooms, the odd fruit. Not enough to feed the party.
Ligaya rationed the evening meal. Four-fifths of the day’s bounty was for the village. Of the remainder, the largest portions went to the women and the apprentices, the rest to the ones who had provided for the village. Those who produced nothing received nothing.
Bayani stood the first watch that night. Perla found him, a piece of breadfruit in one hand, a mouthful of cooked macaque in the other.
“You should have this,” she said, handing it out.
“No, you need it more than me.”
“I’m full,” she lied, her smile flashing in the moonlight.
His stomach gnawed at him. “I…I didn’t earn that. I missed my shots.”
Bayani nodded. Perla took his wounded arm, massaging it gently, kneading precise spots. Pain spiked through him, immediately followed by bliss.
“Better. Thank you.”
“Don’t be so harsh on yourself.”
“I didn’t provide any food.”
She laughed. “Men. Always so self-centered. Bayani, one in three hunts end in failure. On your first hunt, you led us to the macaques. Now there’s enough to feed everyone for a while. That, what you did for everyone, is the important part. Now shush, and eat.”
She thrust the food at him. His mouth watered. He swallowed his saliva and his pride.
They returned to the village the following day. Of the five hunting parties the village had sent out, four had returned. Two came back empty-handed. No meat, only handfuls of fruit, but plenty of crafting goods. Bayani felt a little better. But his mother was still out in the field, and his little hut felt unnaturally large at night.
The days passed. The women salted and smoked the meat, storing what they could. Healers tended to the little cuts and diseases hunters invariably picked up in the jungle. Every sunrise, the Maestro gathered the warriors and drilled them in the arts of war. This time, Bayani joined the men, practicing with his ginunting, using his bastons only for drills and sparring.
On the third day after the hunt, as the village gathered around for dinner, Perla and Bayani made excuses to their families and snuggled together. He was a man now, and she was coming to the end of her apprenticeship. She rested her head against his shoulder, her warmth a different kind of heat from the cooking fires. He liked that very much.
But something nagged at him. There were too few people. Granted, people were still trekking in from the jungle, but…his friends, his neighbors, some weren’t here. And as Salazar took his customary place, Bayani noticed the headman was wearing a deep frown. In fact, he was seated earlier than usual, and the serving-women were still roasting the meat.
Something was wrong.
The headman clapped his hands, slowly, solemnly, until all eyes were on him. “My friends, we have a matter of grave importance to discuss.”
Maestro Alejandro, seated by himself as always, said, “Let us hear.”
“Tula and her group are missing. They should have returned two days ago. I fear something has happened to them.”
Bayani chilled. “Mother,” he muttered.
Perla gripped his hand.
One of the villagers called, “Where did she go?”
“To the coast. They were going to trade with the Abiguays and help them fish.”
“The Inrun!” a woman shouted. “The Inrun are returning! The Inrun are returning from across the sea!”
Bayani looked for the source of the voice. Dalisay, the priest’s wife, wide-eyed and slack-jawed, staring at something only she could see. Some said she was a madwoman. Others said she had the Sight.
Conversations buzzed around the fire. The Maestro loudly cleared his throat, and raised his voice. “There could be other explanations! We need to find proof.”
Dalisay continued as though Alejandro had said nothing. “Blood will flow! Blood of the innocent, blood of the wicked!”
“Thank you, we—”
Dalisay swivelled her head, cranking it at an unnatural angle, her eyes fixed on Bayani’s. “An iron age is upon us! Beasts walk amongst men! Swords shatter! Hearts fail!” She extended a knobbly finger, pointed at him. “Heroes die!”
Her eyes rolled back. She groaned, and fainted. Ligaya rose with a sigh, tending to the unconscious crone.
Perla gripped Bayani’s arm. “Don’t listen to her. She’s crazy. Everybody knows that.”
Perhaps. But everybody knew lunatics were the closest to the gods. The villagers stared at him, whispering and chatting. Perla held him tighter.
“Thanks for the prophecy,” Salazar said smoothly. “We will be ready, no matter what comes. Ligaya, please look after Dalisay. For now, we must find Tula and her group. We need a search party, five or six men. Any volunteers?”
Bayani turned to Perla. “I…”
She patted his arm, unwinding herself from him. “Go.”
He stood, raising his fist to the sky. “I will go.”
The Maestro shot to his feet. “Me too.”
And soon every man scrambled to his feet. As Salazar selected four others, Alejandro nodded to Bayani. Maestro to student, man to man, warrior to warrior.
Bayani nodded back.
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