The Maestro led the way, and Bayani followed. The conquistadores, mounted on their horses, tried to keep up. But the jungle was a poor environment for horses, and the Hesperians had to lead their mounts through the trees on foot. Alejandro retraced his footsteps, stopping occasionally to look for sign. Bayani was nervous; as night fell, he could hear the conquistadores trashing behind him, and if he could, then wouldn’t the Inrun hear them too?
Alejandro had the same thought too. He doubled back, ordering the conquistadores to leave their horses behind. Then, using hand signals, he indicated Bayani to follow him and remain silent.
Stalking through the jungle, Alejandro barely made a sound. Bayani stepped where the Maestro stepped, carefully avoiding vegetation where he could, brushing very slowly past them if he could not. It was like tracking prey, only this one could fight back. The conquistadores, however, were trampling through the trees. Branches snapped and leaves rustled. Under the moon, their bright uniforms and pale skin reflected too much light. It was almost as though they wanted to be spotted.
The shot almost came as a surprise.
Bayani jumped. Alejandro crouched, ducking.
More shots. First ragged, individual shots. Then, as men yelled orders above the chaos, they coalesced into disciplined volleys of fire. The musket fire seemed to tear the jungle apart. Unseen Inrun answered with war cries, their shouts tearing through the night. Bayani looked around him, hearing footsteps but seeing nothing. He couldn’t tell who was shooting at what, where the Inrun were, only that people were firing and shouting and dying.
Something crackled up ahead. Alejandro, his bolo drawn, hid behind a tree. Bayani did the same, hand on his ginunting. Moments later, a screaming Inrun stormed into sight, his sword arm held high. Alejandro slipped out from his hiding spot, swift as lightning, and moved. Suddenly a severed hand flew through the air, a blade went flying in another direction, and with a crash the Inrun was facedown, Alejandro kneeling on his back.
“Over here, Bayani!”
Bayani came over.
“I’m going to treat the prisoner. Watch my back.”
“But the Inrun are still out there!”
“So are the conquistadores. In this light they can’t tell between us and the Inrun, and some of them may not want to. Stay low until the conquistadores come. Or the Inrun.”
Bayani stayed low, scarcely breathing. The Maestro rummaged through his backpack, whispering to the wounded man. The Inrun alternated between cursing and whimpering, before finally giving up to silence. Alejandro wrapped the wound in a thick bandage, tying it off with sturdy knots. The gunfire grew louder, nearer, thicker. An acrid scent infiltrated Bayani’s lungs, and he coughed. Heavy bootsteps resounded in the night.
Long, long minutes later, the shooting and the shouting stopped. The Maestro still stayed low, so Bayani stayed low too. Hesperians shouted out at each other in the night, and the occasional shot filled the world with sound and fury.
“Maestro!” de Cruz called out. “Where are you?”
“Over here!” Alejandro replied.
The Hesperian strolled into view, accompanied by four soldiers.
“There you are!” de Cruz said. “We were getting worried.”
“You were doing so well, we decided to do something different.” Alejandro grabbed the Inrun, standing up. “I have a gift for you.”
“Yes. Maybe he can convince El Duc that the threat is real.” Alejandro’s teeth flashed in the moonlight. “Excellent. I shall send him back to the city with a messenger. By the time El Duc gets this message, he can’t fault me for moving on my own.”
“Thank you, my friend.”
“De nada. The Inrun are as much an enemy of your people as they are of mine.”
The soldiers collected the prisoner, binding his arms with rope, and led him away. As they faded from view, Bayani said, “This…this doesn’t seem right. The Hesperians fighting this battle for us. It’s not…”
“Not right? Not fair?”
“Well, yes. This is…this is our land. Our home. The conquistadores aren’t born of this land.”
“They are here now, and like it or not, they are here to stay. They have left their mark here, in everything from language to money to technology. We should make use of them as much as we can.”
“By asking them to fight our wars?”
“If they are willing to, yes. Or would you like to charge Inrun muskets by yourself?”
“I wouldn’t. But they defeated Chief Pula so many years ago and stole our land. It’s not right. It doesn’t feel right to ask them for help.”
“Feelings are nice, Bayani, but reality is more important. We have much to learn from them before we can be our own people.”
“Consider this. We call our art eskrima. That comes from the Hesperian word ‘esgrima’. To fight with swords. Esgrima, though, isn’t like eskrima. They prefer the point to the edge, and thrust to the slash. The point gives them range and lethality. I took that from them and incorporated it into our art.”
“So that’s why people call you Maestro.”
“Yes. You remember the first man you killed?”
Bayani swallowed, and nodded. “I can’t forget his face.”
“That means you are a man. You recall how you killed him, no? The thrust came from the Hesperians, the cut from us. The thrust lets us outrange the Inrun, and the cut finishes them.”
“I see. I…I have to ask you something.”
“You’re a mestizo. Why do you live with us negritos?” Alejandro exhaled sharply. “The Hesperians treated me like a mestizo. Our people treated me like a man.”
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