Sand and Ash 1: Running Alone

In Miwāfu, only the last part of a name is accented. This creates a confusing situation for outsiders when a member of the Beporómu clan is named Beporomu Fusóki. — Jyomiku Komishímu, Words of the Desert

Shimusogo Rutejìmo ran alone across the desert, chasing after a bird, a dépa, he could never catch and only he could see. No matter where he ran, his feet struck solid ground. As his bare foot lifted from the ground, the rock crumbled back into shifting sands before being sucked into the plume of dust and rock that billowed out behind him. Despite running faster than most horses, his heartbeat was a steady rhythm that matched the impacts of his bare feet against the sun-burned ground. On a good day, he could cover thirty miles in less than an hour for as long as the sun hung in the sky.

The small bird was Shimusògo, his clan spirit. Only a foot tall, it always raced a heartbeat in front of him no matter how fast he sprinted. If he slowed, it would disappear and the heat and exhaustion would bear down on him. But when he chased Shimusògo, Rutejìmo felt the euphoria of magic pulsing through his veins and beating underneath his feet.

For the first time in months, he ran for the sake of running instead of racing from one end of the Mifuno Desert to the other while delivering documents and decrees. For a few days, he didn’t have to worry about recording legal contracts in Wamifuko City or the constant back and forth between Kidorisi Valley and Mafimara Ridge during tense negotiations for trade rights.

The last job, the one involving the Kidorīsi and Mafimára clans, still haunted his thoughts. More than a few times he had to circle around an ambush or sneak into the valleys to avoid being attacked by those opposed to the treaty. The wound on his leg still itched from his brush with a sniper’s arrow.

Rutejìmo tore his thoughts away from the previous job. The two clans signed their treaty, and Rutejìmo personally delivered it to the archives in Wamifuko City. It was the end of three months of hard running, and he was ready to spend a few days doing nothing but relaxing.

The desert air beat against his bare chest and tickled the dark hairs that dusted his chest. It tugged at his red trousers with sharp snaps of fluttering fabric. Motes of bright energy slipped out from Shimusògo’s wings and joined in with the wind to buffet his skin. The energy streamed around his body before joining in with the vortex of air created by his passage.

Rutejìmo smiled and pushed himself to run as fast as he could. Despite his speed, he was still the slowest runner in the clan. But alone on the sands, he didn’t have to worry about anything besides running in a lazy circle around Shimusogo Valley, his ancestral home. He kept the valley in the periphery of his vision and strayed no more than five leagues away before coming back around. Even close to home, there was always danger.

The sun touched the horizon. The dépa turned sharply and headed for the valley. He followed without question, submitting himself to the spirit’s will. The route brought him in line with the entrance of the valley, and he raced across a patch of sharp rocks before coming up to the familiar trail that would bring him home before the sun’s light faded.

Like all spirits of the sun, Shimusògo gained power from the light, and Rutejìmo gained his power from the spirit. When darkness descended across the world Rutejìmo’s speed would fade, and he would feel every ache, pain, and guilty thought in his head. He would be just another man in the desert, slow and plodding.

Too soon, he was coming up to the two pillars that marked the entrance of the clan’s valley. He slowed down and cringed. He hated that moment when he ceased to run. In front of him, the dépa grew closer with his slowing. When he smoothly shifted from a run to a jog, the bird disappeared from sight.

The magic stopped with the dépa’s disappearance. Without power fueling his speed, Rutejìmo sank into the sand. The peace and joy of running slipped away, and the aches of his month-long missions seeped back into his joints.

He jogged past the pillars, gasping for breath. Two red and orange cloths embroidered with the Shimusògo name billowed from each side. The right banner had signs of being recently patched, and he wondered which child had managed to rip it.

“Good run?” asked Gemènyo. As always, a cloud of pipe smoke swirled behind him and marked his passage. His short black hair had a fringe of white on the temples. The older man strolled down stairs carved into the rock behind one pillar. The stairs led to a guard post where someone could see anyone approaching the valley.

Rutejìmo nodded and stopped. The world spun around him for a few seconds before he adjusted to being still. “Yes, I just needed to…” He gave up trying to find a word and shrugged, running his hand through his own short-cropped black hair before shaking the sweat from his palm.

Gemènyo chuckled. “Shimusògo run.” It was the clan’s motto.

“Shimusògo run.”

They both headed into the valley. Their bare feet slapped against the stone, but Rutejìmo could barely feel the impact. His feet were heavily callused from constant running on sands and rock. Only during the rapid slowing, when he dug his feet and hands into the ground, did he feel the drag of the earth against his soles.

They passed a pair of teenage boys dragging a box of supplies to the guard post. They left behind a trail of dirt and Rutejìmo followed it back with his eyes until he spotted where the two cut through the fields to shave a few minutes from their route between the cooking area and the entrance.

Gemènyo pulled his pipe out and clicked his tongue in disapproval.

One of the boys looked up and blushed before grabbing the box and dragging it faster.

Rutejìmo chuckled and shook his head. It wasn’t that long ago when he did the same thing. He had no doubt the punishment would be the same, planting the next round of crops underneath the watchful eye of one of the clan’s elders.

“Hey, Jìmo?”

Rutejìmo smiled at the familiar use of his name. “Yeah?”

“Want to play cards tonight?” He gestured up to the side of the valley to where their homes were carved into the rock. All of the cave entrances where simple holes in the stone with the occupied ones covered by a red or orange blanket with the owner’s names. Gemènyo’s home was a few rods, just under thirty feet, past Rutejìmo’s bachelor cave.

“Are your wife and mother joining in?”

“Probably not. Faríhyo is cooking, and her mother is on cleanup,” Gemènyo gestured to the large cooking area in the center of the valley, “so both will be out chatting until lights out.” He took a long, dramatic deep breath. “I can smell her lovely cooking even from here.”

“I doubt you can smell anything with that pipe burning.”

Gemènyo hefted the pipe in his hand and swished it around, tracing lines in the air.

Rutejìmo could tell he was writing something obscene. With a grin, he slashed his hand through the smoke. “Old men like you shouldn’t use words like that.”

“Old men like me and Hyonèku shouldn’t have to invite young men like you over for cards.”

Hyonèku was Gemènyo’s best friend. They grew up together and were comfortable enough to share everything with each other. They also treated Rutejìmo as a treasured younger sibling, something he didn’t get from his own brother.

Rutejìmo shrugged to cover the brief moment of discomfort. They headed up along the narrow paths leading to the family caves. “What am I going to do? Sit in my cave alone for the night?”

“No, but there are other things you can do. Things most young men do.”

Rutejìmo rolled his eyes. “I’m not into chasing around the girls, if that is what you mean. Most of them run faster than me.”

“Oh no,” Gemènyo chuckled, “I would never suggest the young courier try to actually find some companionship on his own. These old bones,” he began to limp, “need the company in case I fall.”

With a chuckle, Rutejìmo smacked him on the shoulder. “Well, Mènyo, if you need some help I’ll ask Tejíko. I’m sure she’ll…” He grinned at the mock horror Gemènyo displayed at the mention of Rutejìmo’s grandmother.

Gemènyo shuddered. “Fine, fine. I won’t mention it again.”

“Yes, you will. And if it isn’t you, Nèku will say something. I’m just not,” a guilty memory rose up, a dark-skinned woman with horse tattoos across her back, and he struggled to complete his sentence. “… not ready yet, I guess.”

“You’re thinking about Pabinkue Mikáryo again.”

Rutejìmo looked up with a start and cringed at Gemènyo. “What?”

Gemènyo smirked and gestured to a necklace Rutejìmo wore around his neck. “I can tell when you play with that.” The black leather was snug around his throat, and a large, chipped-off tooth hung from it. Mikáryo had broken it off a large snake that would have killed him. A lesson, she told him, but one that Rutejìmo still struggled to understand.

With a blush burning on his cheeks, Rutejìmo snatched his hand away. He looked across the valley. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Gemènyo stepped closer and patted Rutejìmo on the shoulder.

Rutejìmo’s shoulders and back tensed, but he nodded and continued walking along the trail. They passed the lanterns that would light the trails at night. At the moment, the crystals were dark while they soaked up the sun.

“Jìmo,” Gemènyo said in a softer voice.

His stomach twisted, but Rutejìmo looked back over to his friend.

Gemènyo finished tapping more weed into his pipe. “I’m not saying give up on Pabinkue Mikáryo; just realize that you will probably never see her again. It has been ten years.”

Images of Mikáryo drifted across his mind—the tattoos on her back, the black fabric wrapped around her body, the way her loincloth hung from her hips when she knelt in front of a fire—until he tore his thoughts away. “I know.”

“Though,” he glanced at Rutejìmo with a smirk, “she clearly made some impression. Sure she didn’t crawl into your sleeping roll when we weren’t watching?”

Rutejìmo groaned and rolled his eyes. “No, she was threatening to kill me the entire time.”

“Not what we saw,” Gemènyo said with a smirk.

Stepping back, Rutejìmo punched Gemènyo in the shoulder. It was supposed to be a playful hit, but it impacted harder than he intended.

Gemènyo stepped back, his feet scraping the edge of the path before he regained his balance. He drew deep from his pipe before blowing the smoke in a cloud around him. “Come on. Throw your stuff in your cave, and I’ll meet you down at the fires.”

Rutejìmo nodded.

Gemènyo disappeared in a blast of air and sparkles of fading sunlight. The smoke from his pipe flew after him, swirling in a vortex to mark his travel along the narrow path up to his own home. He stopped at the entrance to wave at someone, and the wind brought the cloud of pipe smoke into a haze around his head.

Rutejìmo pushed aside the blanket covering the entrance of his own home and ducked into the darkness. He lived in one of the smaller caves in the valley with only one common room and a hall leading into two smaller rooms. Inside the door was his travel pack, sitting where he had dropped it off before running. Bracing it on his shoulder, he walked past the nearly empty main room and into his bedroom.

He spilled the contents of his pack out on the bed and sorted through the mess. He didn’t use his travel rations, but he had to refill one of his water skins. He returned items to his pack after checking them, so he would be ready to run on a moment’s notice. He had a roll for sleeping, a small tent, and an alchemical gel for cooking. A trio of travel lights, small globes with a clockwork mechanism, settled into their customary place inside his bag.

Outside of survival gear, he had a book of poetry and his voting stones. Each of the black rocks with white ridges represented one year of being an adult in the clan. Another thirty rocks were secreted underneath his bed, but he was still a year away from pulling out the next one.

It took him only a few minutes to clean up from months of travel and prepare for the next trip. He knew that Gemènyo would be at least another hour—he had a wife and two children to regale with his adventures on the sands. Normally his wife would have run the Kidorīsi and Mafimára route, but she was pregnant with their third child. Rutejìmo had taken her place for the last five months while she succumbed to the care of retired couriers in the valley.

After twenty minutes of stalling, hunger finally evicted Rutejìmo from his cave. He set his full pack right inside the entrance before leaving. As the blanket slid into place, a girl’s voice interrupted his thoughts.

“Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo?”

He turned to the speaker as she stepped out of the darkness. It was Mapábyo, Hyonèku’s adopted daughter. The teenager was right at the cusp of womanhood, and everyone wondered when Tejíko, the clan elder and Rutejìmo’s grandmother, would send her on her right of passage.

Unlike the rest of the clan, her skin wasn’t the warm brown of the northern clans but the deep black of the south. She and her parents were part of a six-month caravan trip that Hyonèku had joined when Mapábyo was four. Her parents died during a raid and no one stepped up to take care of the young girl. Hyonèku, who had already fallen for the girl, carried her back across the desert to join the clan.

She wasn’t born into the clan, but she had the body of a clan runner. She was thin and muscular, with little fat to grace her curves or chest. Her bare feet were heavily calloused. She wore a white tunic with a red skirt wrapped around her waist; it was an outfit that Rutejìmo hadn’t seen before, but the skirt used to be her adoptive mother’s. Her bare ankle sparkled with a steel bracelet that rested on the ridge across her foot.

He smiled and gave a low bow. “Good evening, Mapábyo. You look nice.”

She held her arms behind her back and inched into the light of the lantern. Her eyes, a deep green flecked with lighter lines of emerald, flashed in the light. “Could I bother the Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo with a question?”

He chuckled. “Of course, but call me Rutejìmo at least.”

She smiled and inched closer to him. Her long, black hair had been braided into a thick line down her back. Twisting her foot on the ground, she peeked up at him. “Sorry… Rutejìmo.”

Rutejìmo stepped into his cave and grabbed two stools from inside the entrance. Turning around, he almost bumped into her. For a moment, he stared into her green eyes, and an uncomfortable feeling twisted his gut. “Um, out here would be best. That way no one would get any ideas.”

“Oh,” she stepped back.

Rutejìmo set the stool on the ground.

She watched until he stopped moving, then sat down on it. Twisting her hands in her lap, she struggled for a moment then said, “It’s about… the rite of passage.”

He sat down heavily. “You know I can’t tell you anything. Part of the rites is not knowing what will happen; otherwise you might not hear Shimusògo when he calls.”

She gave him a pleading look. “I know, but I was hoping you… might be willing to break the rules. I remember when you came back from yours. You had this,” she waved her hand as she paused, “haunted look on your face when you didn’t think anyone was watching. And ever since, you’ve run just a few steps away from the others.”

Rutejìmo thought back to his own rite of passage. The clan had abandoned him and others in the middle of the desert to find their true character. Rutejìmo, to his dismay, almost didn’t survive it. He only lived because of friendship from the other teenagers in the clan. It also introduced him to Pabinkue Mikáryo, the woman who haunted his dreams.

Mapábyo held up her hands. “Anything? Please, Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo?”

He chuckled softly. “Pábyo, I can’t tell you what’s going to happen because I don’t know. What I went through was nothing like what your father or even Gemènyo experienced. You probably won’t even realize you are in it until…” He realized he was saying too much. “Well, until you’re in the middle of it.”

She sighed and tugged on her braid.

He glanced out into the valley where night was descending. Crystal lanterns were flickering to life, bathing the trails in hazy blue light. The one outside his cave hummed before coming to life. With a flicker, both Rutejìmo and Mapábyo were cast in a harsh, painful light.

“It’s been years since I’ve been old enough,” she said on the edge of tears. “Why haven’t they taken me by now? Is it because I wasn’t born a Shimusògo?”

With a shake, he pointed to the shrine. “You got in trouble trying to break into the shrine during Shimusògo’s birthday festival. And you should be glad it was Chimípu who caught you instead of your father. He wouldn’t have stopped at the entrance.”

She giggled softly and ducked her head. “I thought Chimípu was going to kill me.”

“So did all of us. Though,” he grinned, “I had four pyābi that you would have made it to at least the pillars.”

Mapábyo looked up with a gasp. “You did?”

Gemènyo stepped into the light and said, “Yes and I had ten that she would beat your ass before you made it past the cooking area. Of course,” he grinned and exhaled, “I won.”

Ducking her head, she stood up and gestured to the chair. “Good evening, Great Shimusogo Gemènyo.”

Gemènyo shook his head and gestured back to the chair. “Don’t you know better than to ask about the rites?”

“Yes, Great Shimusogo Gemènyo.” She spoke in a quiet, deferential voice.

“Go on, your papa’s probably asking for you down by the fires.”

She ran down the trail toward the fire, not with the magic of the clan, but with the energy of a teenage girl. She wouldn’t be able to chase the dépa until after her rites, when the stress would lay her soul bare to the spirit of the clan.

Rutejìmo stood up, grabbed the two stools, and replaced them inside the cave.

When he stepped out, Gemènyo was watching him with a smirk on his face.

“What?”

“Oh, nothing… Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo.”

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