The men traveled all night and most of the day, resting only during sun-scorched afternoons. Not so long ago, Bayani would have complained about the schedule, the pace, the long hours. But each time he was tempted to open his mouth, he thought of mud-covered Inrun snaking their way through the swamps and the jungle, and held his tongue.
Every morning, the Maestro prepared a special brew from strange herbs. He didn’t reveal the names of the herbs, but whatever they were, the drink chased away the pains of the previous day and refreshed his blood for the journey to come.
The wide, paved road slowly but steadily climbed upwards. The jungle was thinning, giving away to rolling hills. They had made good time, shaving off almost a full day with their pace. Despite that, Bayani felt uneasy. The road was empty. He had expected more traffic. Where were the traders, the farmers, the messengers? All he had seen was a missionary, either extraordinarily brave or extraordinarily foolhardy, traveling alone and unarmed. But he was a peninsulare, a full-blooded Hesperian, and therefore untouchable.
He was about to voice his concerns when Alejandro held up the hand signal for a halt.
The Maestro backed up into the trees. Bayani followed. When they were safely in the jungle, Alejandro leaned close.
“Smell that, Bayani?”
Bayani took a long deep sniff. He smelled the wet damp of the jungle, the perpetual decay of the undergrowth. Fresh animal droppings and…something else. Something very faint, smothered by the rich scents around him. Something like…iron?
“That metallic smell, Maestro?”
“Almost. That’s Inrun blade oil. They use it to preserve their weapons. But it turns rancid quickly in wet heat.”
“There’s Inrun up ahead?”
“That might be why we haven’t seen anybody on the road.” He sniffed again. “We got lucky. We shouldn’t be able to smell it. Maybe someone applied a touch too much oil.”
“Are we going to fight them?”
Maestro frowned. “You’re joking, boy.”
“Um?” Bayani started, but couldn’t quite say anything.
“We don’t know how many of them are out there. They are expecting people like us. Also, the oil they use is poisonous when it turns.”
Bayani clenched his fists. “The Inrun are invading us!”
“Our job isn’t to kill every Inrun in sight, Bayani. It’s to get help. This is not our fight.”
Bayani breathed deep. “I understand.”
“Good.” Alejandro smiled faintly. “You may yet learn the way of war.”
The maestro led them on a long, circuitous route through the jungle. Over small hills, through a hidden creek, describing a huge arc around the path. The new path ate all the time they had saved traveling hard. But that, Bayani reflected, was likely why the Maestro had insisted on such a fast pace.
On the morning of the fourth day they reached the outskirts of Pulaka. The jungle yielded to paved streets and palms. Huts appeared on the horizon. People walked the streets. All kinds of people: ilustrados in their colorful Hesperian garb, negrito traders selling the bounty of the jungles, sangley laborers building or digging under the watchful eye of peninsular overseers. The bustling crowds overwhelmed him. How could anyone want to live in such a noisy place? In a half-daze, Bayani kept his eye on the Maestro’s back, walking in his footsteps.
The pair came to a huge walled compound. Fuerza del Opon, the Maestro called it. The Hesperians were funny. They insisted that everybody call the city Opon instead of its proper name of Pulaku. The locals had called it Pulaku long before the conquistadores took the island by force, and used the old name still.
Two conquistadores guarded the entrance to the fuerza. They barred the way with their muskets.
“What you want?” the taller of the two barked.
“I wish to speak to Capitan Francisco de Cruz,” Alejandro said.
The soldiers sneered. “Really. Why Capitan de Cruz speak with you, eh?”
“Tell him it’s Alejandro Marquina the mestizo.”
Alejandro? A mestizo? Well, granted, he was taller than everybody else in the village, maybe a shade lighter, but a mestizo? It hadn’t occurred to Bayani to think of the Maestro as one. The Maestro was the Maestro, and that was that. Yet the guards seemed to pay attention to the last word. Exchanging looks, uncertainty crept across their faces.
“I don’t have all day,” the Maestro said. “Are you going to get him, or shall I go see him myself?”
They stood at attention. “You may enter. But leave your weapons with us.”
The Maestro disarmed himself without hesitation. After a beat, Bayani followed. He didn’t like leaving his father’s sword in the hands of these foreigners, but a man did what a man had to do.
A guard led them through the camp, past squares of men drilling on foot and horseback, towards a score of gaudy yellow tents. Two conquistadores protected the largest. The Hesperians exchanged brief, hurried words before admitting the visitors.
Inside the tent, a tall man stood from the desk. He towered over Bayani, over the Maestro even. He smiled broadly, offering the Maestro a hand.
“Maestro Marquina! It’s been too long since you last came.”
Bayani wondered how the man had learned to speak the language of the people so well.
Alejandro shook the Capitan’s hand. “Indeed, my friend. I wish it were under more pleasant circumstances.”
He gestured at a pair of uncomfortable-looking stools in front of an ornately-carved desk. The men sat.
“You must be thirsty. Vino?”
De Cruz hauled up a leather sack. Filling three cups with strange purple fluid, he passed them out and said, “And who is your young friend?”
“Bayani. The newest man of the village.”
“Bayani, eh? Come, you must drink.”
They drank. The wine sloshed down Bayani’s throat, warming his skin and burning his tongue. He coughed.
“Hah!” de Cruz said. “You’re a true man now!”
Bayani coughed again, his cheeks flushing. “Thanks?”
“You’re very welcome.” De Cruz turned to Alejandro. “So, why have you returned?”
“The Inrun have returned. We…I…need your help.”
“The Inrun? Back so soon? I thought they’d learned their lesson the last time around.”
“You fought with the Hesperians before, Maestro?” Bayani asked.
“Yes,” de Cruz said. “During their first invasion, the Maestro saved my life.”
“A debt you repaid twice over,” Alejandro added.
“You’re too kind. How many Inrun did you see?”
“At least a hundred and fifty. Maybe more. They were marching inland.”
The Hesperian frowned. “Well, even so, I can’t just ride off into the sunset with you like in the old days. I answer to Duc Velazquez now. He’d rather have me ride down unwashed tulisanes in the hills, and we have received no word from anybody else that the Inrun were coming.”
“Then do tell the good Duc that we have spotted the Inrun a day away from the city.”
The Hesperian sat up. “Where?”
“They were waiting in ambush along the main road. I think they were intercepting messengers.”
De Cruz muttered something foul in his native tongue. “Are they still there?”
“If we hurry, we may yet catch them.”
The Hesperian leapt to his feet. “Come then! I will rally my men. Guide us to the Inrun war party.”
De Cruz looked at Bayani. “And you, quiet one, maybe we’ll see what the Maestro sees in you.”
Alejandro stood, patting Bayani’s shoulder. “Of that, we have no doubt.”
To stay up to date with my latest writing news and promotions, sign up for my mailing list here!