… including allowing the so-called warriors to vent their lusts on the unmarried youth in the name of “preparing” them for marriage.
— Rolan Madranir, Barbarians of the Desert
Rutejìmo sat in the dark. Beneath him, the sand scraped at his buttocks and hands. A cold wind of night peppered his face with flecks of sharpness. He could see the sun, but the brilliant orb gave no heat or light to the world around him. He was alone and helpless.
Most of his dreams started that way. Just as all of them ended in nightmares.
He hated and feared the night. He still remembered the day when he sent Chimípu out to save Pidòhu, and he was left alone to fend for himself. It had been ten years and memories were hazy, but the dying flame had been burned into his memories. Only a single light source lit up his world, pushing back the horrors that waited for darkness.
Ten years ago, he would have the same nightmare every night. The years had passed and the nightmares faded with time. Now, clutching his muscular legs to his chest, he remembered the sick fear of helplessness clawing at his guts.
He glanced over his shoulder, expecting something to come out for him. He wouldn’t hear it coming, he never did. It was the warriors who saved him, first Chimípu and then… her. Pabinkue Mikáryo. The warrior of night who haunted not only his nightmares but also his fantasies.
Struggling to remember the confidence of a runner, he looked around. He searched for some light or a hint of what was coming for him: a mizonekima chyòre, the same type of giant snake that had almost killed him years ago; the bandits that preyed on the routes he ran between cities; or even some other unspeakable horror. Mifúno, in all of her glory as the desert herself, had secrets even on the beaten trails, and Rutejìmo knew he hadn’t seen them all.
He whispered a prayer to Tachìra, begging the sun spirit to bring light, but there was nothing other than cold wind and sand.
Something brushed against his arm, and he jumped. Turning around, he clamped down on the muscles between his legs in fear of urinating on himself. There was nothing but darkness.
Letting his breath out, he turned back.
Mikáryo was right there, her face less than an inch from his nose.
Rutejìmo screamed and dove back. His heart slammed into his chest with a ceaseless drumming. He could see her bright as day, but he couldn’t stop the fear that drove him to crawl away.
“You’re pathetic,” she said. She leaned forward to land on her hands, crawling after him on her knees. He could barely remember her anymore, just a memory glossed over by years of nightmares and dreams. He strained to recall the details that had faded with time.
Her black hair flowed down her chest, along the dark brown skin and over the black tattoos that covered almost every inch of her body. There were swirls of horses which trailed along her curves and beneath her clothing. She was almost naked, just like the day he saw her preparing to leave, with only a black cloth over her breasts and a matching loincloth.
Rutejìmo’s heart pounded in his chest and he slumped to the ground. He couldn’t breathe.
She crawled up to him, dragging her body along his legs. He could feel her arms, breasts, and hips with her movement. Her heat was a stark contrast to the icy wind streaming around them.
“Adorably pathetic, actually.” And then there was that smile, a mixture of pity and affection.
Rutejìmo whimpered and reached out for her, afraid to touch her but desperate to feel her.
A flash of sunlight burst across his eyes and two dépas bounded over his chest. Before he could exhale, two bodies slammed into Mikáryo and threw her into the darkness. Rutejìmo knew it would be Desòchu and Chimípu, but he couldn’t see anything but the sunlight glowing around their bodies.
The sound of fighting filled the air. They were attacking each other, bare fists against flesh. With each impact, a flash of sunlight or moonlight would burst out to highlight the blow before the darkness would rush back in. It left stars across his vision.
Rutejìmo clamped his hands over his ears and closed his eyes tightly. He hated the violence. He hated watching the clan warriors defend him, even when his life was in danger. He screwed his face in desperation to keep his senses shut, but the sounds and lights kept intruding despite his best efforts.
And then Mikáryo’s scream, shrill and angry, slashed through the darkness. It rose to a high pitch and then there was a heavy thud. Her scream ended abruptly.
Rutejìmo sat up in his bed, gasping for breath. Sweat prickled his skin. He stared around, terrified to see a body draped across his bed or smell blood in the air. A pounding in his ears thumped with the rapid beats of his heart, drumming against his senses.
Gulping, he reached out and grabbed a travel light from his pack. The fist-sized globe felt comforting. He rolled it over and found the metal key on the bottom. Twisting it a few times, he released it and set it down on his lap. Inside, a clockwork mechanism began to rapidly tap against a crystal. Each impact against the crystal brought to life a few blue sparks which flowed inside the globe. After a few seconds, the entire thing shone brightly and filled the room with pale blue light.
He inspected the room, thankful when he didn’t see bodies or blood. Every death had burned a mark across his nightmares. The first was seeing a boy he grew up with lying against a rock with his throat cut. The second was sitting across from Yutsupazéso, the clan elder before his grandmother, when she had a seizure during dinner. The latest happened a year ago when he walked into his grandmother’s cave for dinner only to find her bowed over the body of her husband. The last was the first and only time he had ever seen his grandmother, Tejíko, cry.
Trembling, he pushed himself out of the bed. He felt drained and sick. He pulled on a pair of cotton shorts, a gift to himself on his twentieth birthday, and leaned against the wall. The cool stone felt good against his heated skin. With a groan, he grabbed the snake tooth around his neck.
Images of his dream drifted up, and he pictured Mikáryo kneeling above him. He could never forget the smoldering green eyes when she looked at him over the fire. Everyone in the desert had green eyes, but hers were almost pure emerald, and looking into them was like looking into a crystal-clear moon.
His heart began to quicken, and his manhood twitched. With a groan, he dug his fingers into his palms until the pain tore his thoughts away. Every time he thought about her eyes, he felt guilty. There was a flame there that haunted him as much as anything else, a childish fantasy over a decade old.
Mikáryo’s clan spirit, Pabinkúe, gained power from the moon and night. Shimusògo, like all clans of the day, received their powers from Tachìra, the sun spirit. The two, sun and moon, were enemies since the beginning of time over the affections of Mifúno.
Rutejìmo staggered out of his sleeping area and into the main room. It was dark except for a thin sliver of orange light that speared from the entrance. He padded to the heavy blanket covering the opening, moving by rote memory around his few possessions. At the entrance, he could feel the cool air slipping by the blanket. He steeled himself and pushed it aside, stepping out into the night.
At night, the valley was dark except for crystal lanterns at the entrance of each cave. The crystals gathered energy from the sun during the day and then glowed orange and blue throughout the night. Judging from the faded light coming from his lantern, it was well into the night and few people would be up.
He let out a long breath and watched it fog in the air. Across the valley, he spotted Pidòhu’s home with two lanterns on each side. The yellow banner with Pidòhu’s name could be read from clear across the valley; the shades of yellow complemented Shimusògo’s red and orange colors. Smoke billowed out of a vent in the cave and rose up into the night sky, flickering with red embers before fading into gray and then black. Pidòhu was up and working, probably fixing one of the steam-powered dogs the clan used for hauling loads from one end of the valley to the other.
Pidòhu lived in Shimusogo Valley with the other two members of the Tateshyúso clan. The two clan spirits were bound together, much like husband and wife, but in ways that only spirits could intertwine their energies and their families. But where Shimusògo was the dépa, Tateshyúso manifested as a shadow of a giant raptor sailing across the sky. She was powerful and silent, demanding more from Pidòhu than Shimusògo ever asked of Rutejìmo.
Rutejìmo considered heading over, then changed his mind. It would have only been a few seconds to sprint across the valley, but he kept Pidòhu up all night the last time they were both home. Rutejìmo stepped to the side and leaned back against the rock framing the entrance to his home. The cool air tickled the hairs on his chest and dried the sweat. He welcomed the prickle of his skin and the shivers that came from the cold seeping in through his back.
Memories of Mikáryo drifted through his mind, and he tugged on the snake tooth hanging from his throat. He struggled with the guilt that came of thinking about her black tattoos or the way she looked at him.
Someone raced the length of the valley bottom and a plume of dust rose behind them. Usually, everyone lost their power of speed when the sun dipped below the horizon, but being close to the shrine gave some measure of power to accelerate fast enough to race. He traced the curls of dust with his eyes until it stopped at the inner entrance of the valley.
Two women stood talking to each other with dust swirling around them. The older one, Kiramíro, was in her mid-thirties and heavily scarred from an ambush from a scorpion clan. She limped but still ran faster than anyone but Desòchu and the woman she was talking to, Chimípu.
He watched Chimípu speak, unable to hear her words. A year older than him, Chimípu’s poise and talent came naturally. Even after years of fighting, her lithe figure showed only a few signs of her violent life, mostly with the healed scars along her shoulders, hands, and forearms. As she spoke to Kiramíro, she made an exaggerated bow which showed off her lithe form. Both of them laughed loudly and Rutejìmo wondered what joke Chimípu had just told. He wished he had her ease in talking to everyone, old and young.
Both Kiramíro and Chimípu were warriors for the clan. Not only could they run faster than Rutejìmo, Shimusògo gave them powers to defend the couriers and the valley from the other clans of the desert. He had seen Chimípu glow with golden fire, fight off a herd of telepathically-controlled horses, and use a slingshot to turn stones into flaming missiles that shattered rock.
There was a price for her powers though, a curse that Rutejìmo couldn’t even comprehend living with. She was sterile, like all warriors, and she would never marry. The remainder of her life would focus on the clan as a whole, to protect and guide, to be a comforting shoulder, a stern teacher, and the hand of punishment. She would never retire either. It was only a matter of when she died in battle, not if.
His thoughts grew darker. During his rite of passage, he abandoned Chimípu and Pidòhu to the desert. He almost died, not by exposure or enemy, but by his own brother, Desòchu, who would have cut his throat to ensure that Rutejìmo didn’t poison the Shimusògo clan with his disloyalty and need for isolation.
He sighed and thumped his head against the rock. He felt alone in the dark, haunted by memories, guilt, and death.
A blast of air slammed into him. He tensed and turned away before the sand bounced off his body. It took only a second for the wind to die down around him and he watched a few golden feathers flutter past him. He looked back to where Kiramíro and Chimípu stood, but only trails of dust marked them going separate ways. Silently, he followed the one trail of kicked up dust as it made its way toward him and stopped behind the faintly glowing woman approaching him. Flickers of heat and sparks rose up from her body, lighting up her hair in a halo of flame.
“You’re up late, Jìmo,” Chimípu walked the last few feet between them. She stopped on the opposite side of the entrance, leaning her shoulder against the rock. Her knife tapped against the rock, and the letters engraved on the blade flashed.
“Because of Desòchu sending you out tomorrow?”
He chuckled, and then sighed. “No, nightmares.”
“About Pabinkue Mikáryo?”
Rutejìmo realized he was holding the tooth. He pulled his hand away. “Am I that obvious?”
With a shrug, she rolled on her back and stared out across the valley. “Yes, but in your defense, it has been ten years. Most of us know about that,” she gestured toward the necklace. “But I saw how you looked at her. You were smitten.”
With a groan, he slid down the rock. “Why hasn’t anyone told me I was that obvious?”
She laughed. “Because it was innocent.”
“Why are people telling me now?”
“You’ve held a shikāfu flame for her just like Obepáryo pining for Hidòshi.”
Rutejìmo noticed she didn’t answer the question. He gave her a mock glare. “Obepáryo died waiting for Hidòshi to come back. She killed herself because she couldn’t survive without him.”
“Well,” she shrugged, “I wouldn’t have let you get that far.” She winked and smirked.
“Thanks. I’ll try to keep the tear-filled wailing to a minimum.” He chuckled. “Though, no promises about the whole wandering barefoot through the desert, clutching my pregnant belly as I search the night for my one true love.”
Chimípu crouched down and balanced on her heels. Her body found a perfect balance before she rocked back and forth. Her weapons, her knife and bola, swayed with her movements.
Rutejìmo watched her for a moment. “What’s wrong with me, Mípu?”
She said nothing for a long moment. Then she pulled her knife and flipped it in her hand. She tossed it high above her. Little sparks of light ran along the name on the blade before it came down. She caught it neatly. Tossing it back up, she said, “There is nothing wrong with you, little brother.”
He blushed at the name. She only called him brother when they were alone. It was a private form of affection, almost forbidden from a warrior who had to sever all ties of her own family.
Chimípu caught the blade with her other hand. “You’re just different. That day on the sand, when you saved Mikáryo’s life? Something changed in you. I saw you.” She smiled and flipped her knife hard, and it shot up into the sky in a streamer of golden flames. “You became a man that day, but not in a way that me, Desòchu, or anyone else thought you would.”
“I still wonder if I did the right thing.”
Chimípu stood up. “No, you did the only thing you could do. And that is why I stood behind you and why you will always be my little brother.”
He smiled sheepishly. “Thank you, Chimípu.”
She stepped away from the stone, swinging her foot in a wide sweep before heading down the stairs.
Rutejìmo pushed himself up along the rock, scraping his back on the sharp edges. “Going to Pidòhu’s?”
Chimípu stopped and looked over her shoulder. There was a sad and hopeful look on her face. “Do you want me to stay?”
Warriors like Chimípu served the clan in many ways; one of them was to provide companionship for those who needed it. It could be a shoulder to cry on, company over a meal, or warmth in a bed. It was rare that they had to spend a night alone.
He knew what she was offering. She and Pidòhu spent much of their time together, but Rutejìmo had seen her visit the other unmarried bachelors in the valley. All the warriors did. For those like Rutejìmo, who had never had a woman in his bed, it would be an educational night. It was also expected that he would spend the night with her before he got married to another woman.
But as he looked into her questioning eyes, all he could remember was the sound of her fist hitting Tsubàyo’s face. She had beaten him to the edge of death because he dared to attack her clan. It didn’t matter that Tsubàyo had grown up with Rutejìmo and her, when he became a threat to the Shimusògo, Chimípu had defended the clan without hesitation. The brutal, visceral sound haunted him like everything else from that day.
Chimípu turned and walked up to him with a sad look on her face. She stopped next to him and rested two fingers on his lips. Her fingertips were rough and calloused.
He froze, the pulse beating in his ears.
“No matter what anyone says, it will happen when it’s ready. Don’t worry about your brother,” she lowered her fingers to tap against his snake tooth, “or Mikáryo. When you are ready, just ask. I’ll be there.”
Tears welled in his eyes. He smiled. “Thank you, Mípu.”
Chimípu stepped away and headed down the trail. She didn’t run like she always did, and he knew she was stalling.
He could just call out for her and ask her back. She would come back, not just because it was her duty to the clan, but because he needed her. However, as he watched her strolling down the trail, all he could think of was the sound of her fist striking her enemies.
Rutejìmo closed his eyes for a long time. He turned and walked back into his cave, not daring to open his eyes until he was once again in the comforting dark.