Only a warrior knows the true measure of cowardice.
— Klistan dea Xerces
Writing all night, Rutejìmo had not slept, but he couldn't stop to find shelter. Instead, he lost himself in fleeing the enemies that chased him. He ran steadily, but only because of his years of practice. His body moved, even though his heart wanted to stop.
He continued to chase the translucent dépa racing ahead of him. No matter how fast he ran, he would never catch it, but the effort gave the Shimusògo their abilities to run. As he concentrated on the clan's spirit, the sharpness of his grief faded away beneath the euphoria of the power rippling through his veins.
A small measure of him was thankful that Desòchu's planned route took him along rippling lines of dunes instead of through rocks or against the wind's grain. He traced his path along the bottom of the ridges, hidden from sight except for the occasional need to crest a ridge to find a new valley. It was steady and monotonous, both a curse and a blessing.
Rutejìmo had run since sunrise. He only stopped long enough to duck into an oasis to refill his water skin. Normally, he would stop and interact with the clan protecting the waters, but he couldn't afford to remain in public long. The reputation of Shimusògo would suffer with his rudeness, but they were on the opposite side of the desert and Rutejìmo thought they would understand if they knew his reasons.
Upon reaching the end of one valley, he started to race up the side. The dépa crested before he did and he followed it, casting a mile-long plume of sand behind him. It marked his path, and he wished that the power didn't create an obvious sign of his passing, but he couldn't change how Shimusògo granted his gifts. He hoped no one was looking before he ducked back into the next valley.
But the dépa remained along the ridge.
Rutejìmo tried to go down the other edge, but he felt the spirit drawing him out into the open. After a few seconds of trying, he relented and ran after it.
It was a bright blue day, with not a single cloud in the sky. The searing light of Tachìra cast across the reddish-orange sands around him. It heated his skin, but Shimusògo's power kept the worst of the burn away from him. However, the burns Rutejìmo had earned from his recent purification ritual didn't have the same protection. The aching pain pulsed with his footfalls.
A second translucent dépa raced by, slowing down to match speeds with his.
Rutejìmo jumped at the sight of it, but then sighed in relief. He looked over his shoulder as Nifùni raced up.
They nodded to each other and then ran together.
Almost immediately, some of the tension twisting Rutejìmo's stomach relaxed. He was with someone he trusted. The effort to run grew easier with Nifùni pacing him.
They ran until a half hour before sunset, coming up to the isolated campsite where Rutejìmo had embarrassed himself by crawling into the wrong roll. Together, they came to a hard stop that left deep gouges in the sands right up to the rocky scree that framed one side of the site.
Rutejìmo's body jerked as the ground grew harder, but his callused feet barely felt the difference before he came to a neat stop and walked out of the groove he had just created.
Nifùni bowed to him. “Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo.”
“Great Shimusogo Nifùni. I wasn't expecting to see you.”
“Neither was I. Great Shimusogo Desòchu planned well. I came along… Jìmo?”
Rutejìmo wiped the sudden tears from his face and turned away.
“Great Shimusogo Desòchu stayed b-behind.” Rutejìmo tried to keep his voice steady but it cracked in the end.
“What!?” Nifùni rushed forward. Rutejìmo tried to look away, but Nifùni stepped around and grabbed his shoulders. When Rutejìmo looked up, Nifùni's face was pale and stricken. “What do you mean!?”
Fighting the sobs rising in his throat, he shook his head. “He died defending the clan and to give us more time to escape. I-I saw him fighting them off, but he was about to fall and… and I was a coward.” He looked up and peered at Nifùni through tear-blurred vision. “I ran.”
Nifùni paled even more and looked back the way they came. “That isn't being a coward.”
“You said it yourself, I couldn't fight.”
The muscle in Nifùni's jaw tightened. “I was wrong.”
“How can you say that? I ran from a battle—”
“A fight you would never survive.”
“But, I ran!” Rutejìmo's voice drifted across the hissing sands.
“At least,” Nifùni said in a whisper, “you didn't kill everyone.”
Rutejìmo stopped at the sound of Nifùni's voice.
Nifùni gestured back across the sands. He sighed and his hand dropped to his side. “The problem with running alone is that the only person left to talk to is yourself.” He spoke in a low voice. Rutejìmo knew exactly what Nifùni was feeling. “And the memories that keep playing over and over. Reminding you of your failures, weaknesses, and everything you've done wrong,” he added. “When you try to sleep, it refuses to let go.”
Nifùni looked back, his eyes haunted. He nodded after a time.
Rutejìmo lowered his gaze. “It never goes away. Every run, I'm reminded of my life. It just runs in circles in my head, never slowing, never stopping.”
“But, you never stop.”
With a snort, Rutejìmo slipped his pack off his shoulder. “How can I? There is always going to be someone better than me, faster than me, stronger than me. I'll never be a hero.” He headed into the camp, his eyes narrowed as he peered around for an attacker.
The site was plain, only a niche in the rocks where someone mounted a metal ring for a fire pit. A six-foot brick wall had been built around the campsite to shelter it from the winds with two entrances on the east and west; it was a day clan camp from the openings.
There were few places for someone to hide, but Rutejìmo still circled around the shelter looking for signs of recent use. He spotted none and he returned inside.
Nifùni had already set up his tent, a lightweight fabric that clipped to metal loops mounted in the brick. He was working on Rutejìmo's, pitching it opposite to his.
Normally, the last person to stop at camp prepared it, but with only two of them, it was quicker to work together.
Rutejìmo knelt by the ring and held up the metal container with the alchemical gel they used for cooking. “Can we risk a fire?”
Nifùni sat back on his heels. A droplet of sweat traced the side of his face as he looked up in thought. “I hope so. Last night was cold.” He pointed to the surrounding wall. “That should keep others from seeing any flames, but let's put our packs around the entrances just in case. I'd like hot food tonight.”
Rutejìmo's stomach grumbled in agreement. He gathered up the packs and remaining supplies and piled them high against both openings of the shelter. A few minutes later, he was cooking dinner for both of them.
While they ate, Nifùni made no effort to speak. It wasn't until they were sitting in the darkness, staring at the pale blue glow of a single globe that he interrupted the uncomfortable silence.
“I'm sorry, Jìmo. I didn't think it would end up this way.”
Rutejìmo stirred his thoughts from his own dark spiral of replaying Desòchu's death. Writing the night before had faded the agony of his memories, and it didn't choke him as much, but he still couldn't stop grieving. He lifted his head and looked up at the stars above him, wondering if he would ever live long enough for the ache to fade.
“Why did you stop Great Shimusogo Desòchu from c-casting,” Nifùni choked on the word, “me out? Was it really because you needed me?”
Rutejìmo struggled with his thoughts, trying to pull them together to speak.
“Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo?” Nifùni's voice was pleading.
With a deep breath, Rutejìmo spoke softly. “Five years ago, Desòchu declared me dead to Shimusògo. It took me a long time to figure out what that meant, and I almost died because there was no one to help me. If Desòchu declared you dead back there, you wouldn't have survived the night.”
“But we don't acknowledge the dead.”
Rutejìmo shook his head. “No, we don't talk about the banyosiōu. The warriors still watch us, waiting for us to draw a weapon or be a threat. Otherwise, it would be easy to pretend to be one of the dead, sneak in somewhere, and then draw a weapon. They don't look at us, they don't speak to us, but only when we are not a threat.”
Nifùni inhaled sharply. “Us?”
“Yes, us. Because even though I may have saved you from Desòchu's wrath, I promise that, sooner or later, you will be cast out of the clan. One person has already died because you went against us.” Rutejìmo's voice grew sharper. “You may have risked the entire Shimusògo clan because of your greed.”
“We are poor!” Nifùni's voice echoed against the shelter walls.
“It would have been hard, but we could—”
Nifùni stood up, his head rising out of the light of the globe. “No! I lost that money. I was in the group that got robbed. Not even Great Shimusogo Chimípu could get it back.”
Rutejìmo fought the urge to stand up. He looked up into the darkness, the world spinning. “No, the clan lost that money.”
“I was there! I wasn't—”
“—strong enough.” Rutejìmo interrupted him. He had heard the same things in his own head many times. “You wanted to save Bakóki and be the hero. You wanted to be the one staggering home, covered in blood after saving the day.”
Nifùni's mouth closed with a snap.
Rutejìmo continued, his voice low as he struggled with his tears. “You don't like living in the shadow of Great Shimusogo Desòchu or Chimípu any more than I do. But, when you go to bed at night—” He shook his head "—you tell yourself that at least you're better than me. It's how you sleep, isn't it?
Visible in the blue light, Nifùni's hands balled into fists. He turned and stormed away. “What do you know? You're a coward.”
Rutejìmo listened to the footsteps as Nifùni left the shelter and walked around. A faint thump filled the air and Rutejìmo could imagine him leaning against the outer wall.
He bowed his head again, fighting with his own fears and doubts. “You say I'm a coward, Great Shimusogo Nifùni. And I am because I don't fight. I have never killed anyone, and I never will. The idea sickens me, and I can't do it.”
“I do what I can. I kneel next to the dead as they die.” Rutejìmo sniffed as the tears came and a faint breeze picked up. “When your mother was hit by that arrow, I was the one holding her when her last breath left her lips. I had to be the one who listened to your father's tears, pretending I couldn't hear them as she whispered how much she loved you into my ears.”
“When your sister died from the plague, I was the one who knelt in the shit and blood to reach her. No one else would do that. I had to pick her up,” Rutejìmo's voice cracked, “a-and carry her to the flames. It didn't matter if I would get sick just for touching her, I'm the one who tends the dying—no matter what. There is no one else.”
He took a long, deep breath.
“I may be a coward, so I do the only thing I can do. And that is what we are doing now. The only thing we can do.”