Searching was just a different kind of hunting, Bayani thought. The Maestro insisted that every man be armed. Bayani turned out in his hunting gear: bow in hand, quiver of arrows, baraw tucked into his loincloth, ginunting at his hip. Alejandro carried his bolo in place of a ginunting. The bolo’s short, heavy blade was more useful for clearing vegetation than the ginunting, but in his hands the bolo was no less effective a weapon.
Salazar examined the group, patting their shoulders and wishing them well. To Alejandro, he said, “Expecting trouble, Maestro?”
“Sometimes, the seeress gets something right. And even if she’s wrong, we will be able to hold a hunt on the way home and keep the larder full.”
“Ah. Good thinking.”
Bayani marveled at the Maestro’s thought process. He would have to learn how to think like him. As the party trudged off into the jungle, Bayani lagged behind, keeping pace with Alejandro.
“You have something on your mind,” Alejandro said.
“Well…it’s Grandmother Dalisay. She pointed at me when she said, ‘Heroes die’. Do you think…?”
“Who knows the hour of one’s death? Not I, not even she. The important thing is to focus on the task at hand and do it well.”
“But if…what if…”
“Then die like a man. Sword in hand, surrounded by the corpses of your enemies. Die so well your enemies will fear your ghost.”
Bayani blinked. He had never heard the Maestro speak so harshly. The closest he had come to that was explaining the effect a certain technique would have. But the lectures sounded like an afterthought, an epilogue to the crash of sticks on sticks.
Alejandro chuckled. “Bayani, you have your father’s eyes. And, I think, you have his heart. But as long as you carry that ginunting—” he nodded at the sword “—you must be prepared to draw it. And be prepared for the consequences of drawing blood.”
Bayani nodded. There was so much he had to think about now, and so little time. Maybe later, when Mother was back home, he would have ample time to think.
The jungle gave way to a mangrove swamp. Bayani felt it in his feet, the way the earth softened and squelched between his toes. The group slowed down, carefully winding their way through the thicket of roots that erupted from the mud. Bayani kept his eyes open, watching for stinging insects, crabs and other inhabitants of the undergrowth. He kept his eyes trained on the ground, watching his feet very carefully. So carefully, he almost missed the hand signal to halt.
Bayani froze. The other men halted too. The Maestro, leading the party, lowered to a crouch, his bolo chambered by his ear. One of the men nocked an arrow to his bow. Another unsheathed his ginunting. Bayani breathed slowly, inching his hand to the grip of his sword. He strained his ears, listening for footsteps, snapping twigs, signs of enemies. But all he heard were the warbling of egrets.
Egrets, he remembered, were migratory birds. They would have flown south this time of the year.
Figures leapt from the earth. Gray mud dripped from their bodies. Bayani yelped. Shiny objects flashed in their hands. The mudpeople roared as one, charging towards them.
Bayani shook. What were these? Multo? Diwata?Some other kind of beast? What were—
“KIIIIIIIILLLLLLL!” Alejandro yelled, launching himself at the nearest foe.
The men took up the war cry, counter-charging the ambush. Bows thrummed, and two of the enemies dropped. Bayani fumbled, yanking his ginunting free. Steel crashed against steel. Blood splashed across the trees. He was needed—
No. The Maestro had said that one should never attack from the front if one could attack from the side. Bayani surveyed the scene again. There were at least eight Inrun, closing in on his people in a rough semicircle. If Bayani joined the scrum there would be little room to fight. But if he attacked from the side…
The mass of screaming men seemed thinner on the left. Bayani splashed through the mud, scrambling over roots, bringing his weapon high and using his live hand to maintain his balance. Blood pounded in his ears, men screamed and died and—
And a mud-covered man emerged from behind a tree, his sword high in both hands. This close, Bayani could study the sword in exquisite detail. The point of the tapered blade shrunk down to a narrow base. A spikelet protruded above the main point. This was a kampilan, the signature weapon of the Inrun.
He was a man, and men can die.
The Inrun yelled, slashing his sword down. Bayani diagonal-stepped left, his sword racing for the Inrun’s head. The blades clashed. Bayani flowed into a second cut, going for the knee.
The Inrun staggered, falling on his back, growling in a strange tongue. Bayani pointed his sword at him and said, “No, no, don’t get up, don’t—”
The Inrun got up. Favoring his left leg, he propped himself up on his sword. With a shout, the Inrun lunged, slashing wildly. Bayani swore, side-stepped left, swung his ginunting down, looked away and brought his hand up to his face. Warm liquid splashed across his palm. His sword down at his hip, Bayani stepped in, smacking his palm into his enemy’s face and thrusting the blade deep into his belly. Twisting the sword, he slashed out and used the momentum to push the threat to the ground. A foul stench filled his nose.
His opponent fell to his side, squirming and moaning. Pink snakes writhed in the open wounds. Bayani grimaced. His legs turned to jelly. Did he just—
He turned to his left. An Inrun was charging, sword raised. Bayani snapped his sword to the guard and the Inrun’s head and arm sailed from his shoulders.
Bayani blinked. How the…?
The corpse took a step and tripped over a root, gushing blood at his feet.
He looked up. Maestro Alejandro was standing in front of him, blood dripping from his bolo, his eyes aflame.
“Pay attention, Bayani! There’s more than one foe!”
His arms regained their strength. “Where, Maestro?”
“Out there. Stay here. Watch our flanks. I’ll check on the others and get back to you.”
Alejandro spun on a heel and returned to the front. Now, Bayani realized, the jungle had gone silent. No bird calls. No fog croaks. Only the moaning of grievously wounded men. Bayani wiped the filth on his ginunting off on a rag.
The Inrun he had gutted was muttering something under his breath. He was holding in his guts, but blood seeped through his weakening fingers. At that moment, Bayani realized the man’s right hand was lying a foot away from the rest of him, still clutching his sword.
“Ina…” he whispered. “Ina…”
Was he calling for his mother? This…this barbarian, who had tried to kill him not too long ago? How strange. A moment ago, he was furious and filled with life; and now he lay as helpless as a baby, bleeding out his lifeblood.
His voice burbled, and faded away. All the strength fled Bayani’s hands. He staggered, pushed himself up against a tree. Next to the headless corpse. It was still pumping blood, still twitching, still—
Bile raced up Bayani’s throat. He turned away and retched. Again and again and again. A line of thick mucus fled his open mouth. Wiping his lips and tear-stained eyes, Bayani looked up to see Maestro Alejandro towering over him.
“Are you well?”
No. He didn’t feel well. He didn’t feel like he would ever be well again. He brought himself to attention, as best as he could, and realized to his shame that he had soiled himself.
“You’re alive, yes?” Alejandro said softly. “No injuries?”
Bayani patted himself down. “Yes Maestro.”
“Good. That means you’ll become stronger.” He gripped Bayani’s shoulders with powerful hands. “You did well, you understand?”
“Yes Maestro. I…I feel sick.”
Alejandro nodded. “Yes. Whatever you are feeling now is completely normal. Everybody’s first time is like this. Including me. Get it out of you and carry on.”
“I don’t…feel well.”
“But you are alive. We are alive. We won, and that’s the important part. Whatever unease you feel, you will recover from it. Come, now. We must rejoin the others.”
Bayani wasn’t sure if Alejandro was right this time. But there was still work to do. Sheathing his sword, he followed the Maestro.
Sign up for my mailing list here to stay in touch and keep up to date with my latest writing news and promotions!