They smelled the burning before they saw the smoke. In the ash was the sweet scent of cooked meat, and a blacker undertone of charred flesh.
“No,” Bayani whispered. “No.”
Alejandro gripped his shoulder. “Steady, boy.”
“Maestro, we must…” He swallowed. “We must find out what happened.”
Alejandro nodded, the ghost of a smile playing across his lips. “We must.”
Raising his fingers to his lips, Alejandro whistled a sharp note. Capitan de Cruz trotted over to them, guiding his horse across the uneven jungle floor.
“Maestro, is that your village?” de Cruz asked, pointing at the pillar of black, greasy smoke.
“It lies in the same direction, yes. We need to scout ahead.”
“Of course,” de Cruz said. “Do you need any of my men?”
“We are faster and quieter on foot,” Bayani said.
A glint appeared in Alejandro’s eyes. “Yes, and you need to prepare your men for battle.”
“Very well.” De Cruz dismounted, extending his hand. “Vaya con Dios, my friend.”
Alejandro shook it. “You too.”
De Cruz held his hand to Bayani too. “Good luck to you, young man.”
“Thank you.” Bayani gripped De Cruz’s hand and imitated the Maestro, squeezing hard and pumping once.
Bayani was a son of the jungle. He knew every tree, every rock, every pitfall around the village. And he knew there was a particularly tall tree not so far from the village firm enough to hold his weight. Stalking through the undergrowth, his eyes and ears open, he led Alejandro to the tree.
“We can climb up the tree and observe from here,” Bayani whispered.
Alejandro nodded. “Good thinking. But I am old, and climbing is a young man’s game.” He glanced at Bayani. “This is your spot. Stay here and watch. I’ll study the ground on foot.”
“You’re leaving me here alone?”
“I will be back by mid-day.” Alejandro raised his eyebrow. “You can be alone for a while, yes?”
Alejandro disappeared into the bush without a sound. Bayani clambered up the tree, careful to maintain stealth. Little bits of bark peeled away as he hauled himself upwards, and he strove to be more careful. At the crown of the tree, a collection of thick branches awaited. Moving slowly, cautiously, Bayani positioned himself on the lowest branch, grasping the upper ones for balance. He shifted himself around and turned towards the village.
Most of the huts were gone. Burned to ashes. A dying bonfire dominated the central space, more smoke than flame. A pair of Inrun tossed a body into the fire. Nearby, tall cages held people. His heart contracted, and he wondered if Perla were among them. He couldn’t make out any details, just an undifferentiated mass of humanity.
Perla. If they had done anything to her, he would…
He swallowed. There was a time to act, yes, but that time was not now. Now, he had to observe.
Twenty Inrun guarded each end of the road that ran through the village, armed with a mix of muskets and spears. Eighty, maybe a hundred, clustered around the cages, jeering and making obscene gestures. Some gathered in small clusters away from the festivities, cleaning weapons or resting. A small figure with a green and black headwrap mingled with the crowd, talking to everyone he saw.
He was the enemy headman. The same one Bayani had seen in the Abiguay village.
His teeth clenched. He would answer for his crimes.
Bayani kept watch. The Inrun dispersed, laughing and chatting. The headman drew his keris and rattled the bars of the nearest cage. Two minions opened the cage, dragging out a few wailing prisoners. Women. The headman shoved them towards his men and the Inrun…
Bayani bit down on his tongue. How could they do such things? He wanted to turn away, but his muscles froze and his eyes swallowed everything. When they were done the Inrun tossed the bodies into the fire. There and then Bayani decided that the Inrun would die. Every last one of them.
The Inrun were weak. He had to find more of their weaknesses.
Smaller fires illuminated the village. The Inrun cooked meat and stole fruits from the village’s trees. Even the guards watching the roads settled down to rest. Where the jungle brushed up against civilization on the east side, there were only two guards. There appeared to be only brambles and nettles in that direction, but Bayani knew of a secret way through them.
When the sun climbed overhead, he heard a soft hiss from below. Alejandro was there. Bayani climbed down and relayed his findings.
“Excellent work,” Alejandro said. “If we hurry we can catch them unaware.”
“Thank you, Maestro.” Alejandro grinned. “Now, we will make them pay.”
Bayani steadied himself, slowly but inexorably drawing back his bow.
The plan was brutally simple. Eliminate the two eastern guards. Lead the conquistadores into the center of the village. Wait for the Hesperians to fire a volley of shots to disorient the enemy, then close in for the kill.
But it meant Bayani had to hit the target.
His arrow notched, he pulled, pulled some more, as far as the bowstring would go. His target was oblivious, staring dead-eyed ahead of him instead of above, where Bayani awaited in the trees. Bayani lowered the bow a little, aiming for the man’s heart. He thought of the arrows missing the banana tree. The arrow that missed the macaque. He took a breath and breathed the thoughts out. There was only the present. The target.
A scrubfowl called.
The arrow speared the guard in the chest. The Inrun staggered, blinked, looked down at the arrow, and slowly fell to his side.
Bayani checked the other target. He was slumped over, an arrow in his heart. Bayani heaved a sigh of relief. He’d done it. Finally. Stowing his bow, he slid down the tree, stepping carefully on its massive roots to avoid the worst of the undergrowth. He jumped, landing in the middle of a small path just wide enough to admit a man.
Alejandro was waiting for him. The Maestro nodded, Bayani did the same, and Alejandro mimicked the call of a quail.
The jungle rustled and crunched behind them. Conquistadores emerged, armed and armored. Bayani led the way down the trail, the Maestro behind him. A deceptively large bush blocked the end of the trail. Bayani brushed past it, and so did Alejandro.
Now was a time for speed. Not stealth. The men ran, headed for the center of the village. They ran on swift and silent feet. The conquistadores pounded and clanked, their heavy arms and armour betraying them. Hearing the noise, the Inrun roused themselves. The Hesperians formed long thin lines in front of Bayani and Alejandro. Their commanders yelled strings of orders, and the conquistadores brought their pre-loaded weapons to their shoulders, cocking them.
The Inrun jumped to their feet, picking up weapons.
The Hesperians fired.
It was a solid wall of sound, nearly stopping the Inrun in their tracks. Many Inrun dropped immediately. As the Inrun recovered, the Hesperians scrambled, fixing plug bayonets while their commanders covered them with pistol fire. The Inrun headman yelled orders, rallying his men. Drawing his ginunting,Bayani scanned the mass of men, looking for the headman and his wrap.
The Inrun charged.
The Hesperians counter-charged, yelling a blood-curdling war cry with their bayoneted muskets ready.
“Let’s go!” the Maestro called, and joined the ranks of the Hesperians.
Bayani followed. Or tried. When the masses of men collided he lost sight of the Maestro. The Hesperians lunged forward, spiking the Inrun on their bayonets. Some Inrun stepped away from the muskets, closing before the conquistadores could react, and fell on the Hesperians. Bayani caught a glimpse of the Maestro and followed his headlong charge.
Brushing past a conquistador, he saw an Inrun evade a bayonet thrust, stepping into Bayani’s path. Bayani shifted his feet just so and cut. The Inrun stared at the stump of his arm, long enough for the Hesperian to gut him. Bayani kept running, not daring to stop. Where was—
There! Next to a hut, the Inrun headman was screaming and pulling men to their feet, shoving them towards the battle. Bayani ran, but kept his eyes open and swept the field and—
—jumped away as an Inrun thrust a spear at him.
The Inrun roared, stabbing again with his sibat. Sidestepping, Bayani parried the weapon across his body. The ginunting skittered off the sibat’s rattan shaft.
The Inrun retracted the spear, then shifted and swung the butt at Bayani’s face. Jumping back, Bayani gripped his weapon hand with his live hand and brought the blade down.
He stopped the sibat, barely, but the shock of the impact vibrated through his bones and the ginunting bit fast into the staff. Bayani yanked the sword free, and discovered that his left hand was at his baraw. He drew the knife, holding it in pikal, the reverse grip, and closed in.
The Inrun stepped back, raising his weapon above his head. Bayani dodged just as the sibat came crashing down, and hacked out with his baraw. The knife scored across the Inrun’s right hand, forcing it open. The Inrun stepped back, but Bayani was already closing, bringing his sword back around. Bayani slashed, and blood spurted from the Inrun’s neck. The Inrun dropped his weapon and collapsed, hands desperately plugging the wound. Bayani ran past him.
The Maestro just ahead of Bayani, rushing for the Inrun headman. The headman yelled orders at his three remaining minions. Alejandro swerved, running towards the trio.
“Get the headman!” Alejandro shouted.
Jumping in, Alejandro flashed his blade. The Inrun swordsmen jumped back. Then they closed in and the Maestro danced back, luring them away from the enemy leader.
The Inrun headman sneered, drawing his keris. He uttered something in his native tongue. Bayani did not understand a single word, but even if he did, he would not have replied. This was not a time to talk. This was a time to kill. Bayani thrust.
The headman stepped away, slashing out. The swords clanged. He was fast; had Bayani been a moment slower his hand would be on the ground. The headman stepped in, flicking his keris up for a return thrust. Bayani stepped in and scissored his arms outwards. The baraw parried the keris. The ginunting sought the headman’s throat. The headman arched back, just barely dodging the sword.
The headmen stepped in and kept low, driving a rock-solid fist into Bayani’s stomach. Then a knee to the groin. Bayani staggered back, gasping, then took a step back and solidly planted his feet on the ground. He looked up, just as the headman slashed his sword down.
Bayani replied with an upward diagonal slash, deflecting the blade. His sword flowed through a tight arc, going for the headman’s throat. The Inrun crashed his forearm into Bayani’s, blocking the blow. Roaring the headman pressed into Bayani, pushing him back, his hand sliding down to grasp Bayani’s wrist with an iron grip and—
And Bayani remembered the counter.
Bayani snaked his knife hand under his sword hand and hacked out, simultaneously kicking at the Inrun’s lead leg. The blade bit into his wrist and stripped his grip, and the headman dropped to a knee.
Bayani brought his ginunting up and around his head, and split him from left shoulder to right hip.
Bayani panted. Was it…
No. It’s not over. Glancing around, he saw the Maestro cut down an Inrun swordsman. There were two more bodies nearby.
And a fourth one was sneaking up behind Alejandro.
“Maestro! Behind you!”
Alejandro spun around. His left hand flashed, sending a knife towards his opponent. The Inrun dodged, barking a loud “Hah!”
But the distraction bought time for Alejandro to slip up to the Inrun’s side. As the enemy turned towards the Maestro, Alejandro cut down, dis-arming him, then cut again and took his head off.
Alejandro recovered the knife and nodded at Bayani. Bayani nodded back. Together they returned to the swirl of combat.
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