The battle ended shortly thereafter. Or maybe after a lifetime.
Panting, his muscles aching at a point beyond fatigue, Bayani finally lowered his weapons. His sword and knife were soaked through with the gore of who knew how many men. Blood soaked him head to foot. He wasn’t sure how, but he had picked up a few cuts. Nothing fatal, perhaps scratches from jungle plants, or nearly-successful blows.
For the first time in Bayani’s experience, the Maestro was short of breath. Slowly, steady, Alejandro wiped off the blood on his blades and put them away. The Maestro would have fresh scars for his collection, and Bayani shuddered. This was the true price of mastery of the blade, he realized. Either you learned quickly or you died.
“Are you okay, Maestro?” Bayani asked, his voice hoarse and dry.
Alejandro nodded, staggering over to where he had dropped his backpack. He pulled out a small tin canteen, popped the cork and drank deep. Then he thrust it out at Bayani. “Drink.”
Bayani drank. The potion spread a warm fire through his belly, returning strength to his limbs. He could almost forgot the bone-deep weariness threatening to fall across him. He was almost disappointed to learn there was but a mouthful of the bittersweet liquid.
“I have to find Perla,” Bayani said.
“Go. I’ll be here.”
The air was thick with powder and blood. Voided bowels and burning flesh. The Hesperians were corralling prisoners in the center of the village. Just a handful of men, mostly wounded. Their healers, medicos they called them, sped around the village, separating the dying from the merely wounded. He walked as though in a trance, his feet moving of their own accord, his eyes seeing but not quite comprehending what he saw. Even now, in the distance, he heard isolated single shots, metal sinking into flesh, the odd grunt.
The Hesperians were opening cages, releasing the villagers and making room for the captured Inrun. Now his people called his name, motioning him over, and assaulted him with a barrage of questions. Most of them were women, children, the elderly. None were men.
“You came back for us! You got help!”
“Bayani, where’s the Maestro?”
“Thank you, Bayani!”
“Where were you? Where did you go? You let us die!”
Bayani wiped the worst of the filth from his face. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever be clean again.
“Where’s Perla?” he asked.
The crowd hushed. A ripple passed through them, men and women and children stepping aside, opening a hole in the group.
And Perla rushed out, arms outstretched.
“Bayani!” she cried.
She flung her arms around him, burying her face in his chest. He wrapped his arms around her, pressing her tight into him.
“Bayani! You came back! I— I’m…”
He stroked her hair.
“I’m glad your safe.”
They held each other for a timeless moment. The world around them dissolved into blurs and whispers.
“Where’s my mother? And yours?”
“The Inrun… they…”
His blood ran cold. He held her by the elbows and looked at her in the eye.
“What did they do?” he asked.
“They brought her here. In their cages. Last night, they dragged her out. She tried to fight back. They…”
“What did they do?” he repeated.
Wordlessly, she pointed at a spot behind him.
At the embers of the pyre.
Bayani stared, numb. His limbs turned to stone. The smoking fire pit carried the scent of charred pork. He wondered if he’d ever eat meat again, and knew he would. The equation was simple. Eat or starve.
There were still recognizable bodies, curled and shrunken, cooked beyond recognition. If he had any energy left he might have tried sorting through them, tried to find his mother. And Perla’s. But he was tired, and he knew in his heart of hearts that there was no point.
They were dead.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “We tried, but…”
He stared wordlessly at the ashes.
The Maestro shuffled up behind him, much louder than he normally walked. Bayani glanced behind him, and Alejandro rested his hand on his student’s shoulder.
“We did our best, Bayani.”
“How are you feeling?”
Bayani didn’t know. His heart felt like a freshly-drained cup. There was nothing left to feel.
“Numb,” Bayani said, finally.
“I’m sorry about Tula.”
Hot tears gathered around his eyes. Bayani blinked, wondering where they had come from, and wiped them away.
“Did we…did we win?”
“We defeated the Inrun.”
“But did we win?”
“You and I are the only men left. Maybe some managed to flee into the jungle, but there wouldn’t be many of those. Do you think the village can survive?”
“That is your answer.”
“Why…why do people do this?” Bayani asked. “Why did they do this to us?”
“The answers died with the headman. Who knows what he was thinking. But if there is one thing I know, it’s that evil wears many masks, and evil men don’t always need a reason to practice their trade. At least, not one we can understand.”
There was nothing more he could say. Bayani stared at a flickering ember. Watched it fade to black.
“Do you feel like a hero, Bayani?”
He blinked, wondering why the Maestro said his name twice, before the rest of his brain caught up.
“Good. You need to be a man. And, make no mistake, being a man is infinitely harder.”
“What do you mean?”
“Our village is dead. We—you and me—have to resettle who is left and find out whoever survived. We may need to integrate ourselves with a friendly tribe, and that requires a lot of work and delicacy. The Inrun may still be out there, and we have to guard against future attacks. The conquistadores will want payment for their help, and perhaps they will call upon us in the future. There’s no place for a hero here. Only men.”
Bayani nodded. “I’m ready.”
“Come, then. We have men’s work waiting for us.”
Bayani stared into the dying flame a moment more. “Goodbye, Mother,” he said softly.
He sheathed his blades and followed the Maestro, returning to his people. Perla followed him, taking his hand. He squeezed it.
The time of war was over. The time of heroes was done.
Now was the time for men.
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