Rituals and names dominate every waking moment of the barbarians’ lives.
— Pikin Bar, Superiority of Blood
Smelling of smoke and incense, Rutejìmo staggered home in the early evening of the next day. He had walked naked across the desert since sunrise, and his skin burned from exposure. A high-pitched ringing echoed in his ears, and he struggled to keep his eyes focused through the haze that settled into his thoughts. When he could focus his mind, he pictured the flames of the funeral pyre flashing before him.
The transition back to the living required a purification ritual that strained the mind and body. When he first read the ritual, it sounded simple enough: strip down and start walking at the moment the sun rises above the horizon, and follow it until it sets. It required going a day without food or water, dangerous in the desert.
Performing the ritual was an entirely different experience. The book didn’t speak of the agony of sunstroke, the fear of brigands and sandstorms, or even the struggle to keep walking when the sun bore down and skin burned. He had done the ritual for five years, and each time it left him barely able to stand.
He groaned and focused on the sun. Only a finger’s width remained above the horizon, and he was still a league away. He forced himself not to despair and kept planting one foot in front of the other. His bare feet crunched on the gravel field, but he didn’t feel the sharp edges through the thick callouses of his soles.
A wave of dizziness slammed into him. His vision blurred, and the ringing intensified. He tried to force his foot to step forward, but his sole refused to leave the ground. The effort to move twisted his hip, and his legs collapsed.
He struck the earth with his knees. Agony shot up his thighs and spine to explode in the back of his eyes with a flash of light. The ringing became a high-pitched whine, and the world spun violently around him.
With a groan, he pitched forward. He couldn’t stop himself from landing face-first. The sharp rocks cut into his face and chest. He groaned into the gravel. He tried to get his hands underneath him, but his limbs refused to move.
He shuddered and exhaled, trying to concentrate through the pain tearing at his thoughts. His breath kicked up dust in a small eddy that caught the last of the sunlight. He pawed helplessly in an attempt to stand up, but his body was too weak to do more than shove pebbles around.
Rutejìmo sagged into the ground, heedless of the rocks that cut into his face and pierced his thighs. He could smell blood in the air, a coppery smell that burned the back of his throat.
He considered remaining there until the vultures picked his bones, but images of his family rose through the pain and fading light. He groaned and scraped his fingers through the rocks. As soon as he could, he balled his hands into fists and forced them into the gravel. He pushed himself up, ignoring the rock cutting into his knuckles and the shuddering that coursed through him.
It took all his strength to pull one knee underneath his chest. The cracked skin dug through the rocks, the chalky scrape of stone on stone. He gasped and forced his other knee beneath him. At the same time, he pushed himself up until he could slump back on his knees and shins, balancing more by his weight holding him in place than the slack muscles of his body.
Panting, he opened his eyes. It was dark out except for the band of red lining the horizon and a burning light streaking toward him. He focused on the golden light as it left a trail of sparkling motes behind it. Chimípu was the only one in the valley that night who could use magic after the sun set. Everyone else was limited by Shimusògo’s power, which came from the sun spirit. When the sun set, the magic fled all the clans of the day and left them as powerless as children.
She came to a stop in front of him, and the wind of her running buffeted his face, peppering his abused body with debris, but it quickly died down with a rustle as rocks bounced off the ground.
Chimípu rested one hand on her hip and held her other out for him. A halo of golden flames and translucent feathers lit her dark skin. It coursed along her reddish hair and set it waving. Her eyes glittered in the light and looked almost inhuman.
She stepped forward and slipped her arm around his waist. “I’ve got you.” The flames continued to rise off her body, but the fire didn’t burn him. Instead, it filled him with the same euphoria he felt when he ran. The power of Shimusògo.
Rutejìmo groaned and leaned into her. Even though she was slender, her body was hard as rock. She lifted him smoothly to his feet and bore him as if he weighed nothing. The knife strapped to her hip thumped against his naked thigh.
She held him tight and aimed toward Shimusogo Valley. “The hardest part is always waiting for sunset. Some of us, like your wife, struggle more than others.”
He nodded, but said nothing. He concentrated on walking the best he could, even though he knew that Chimípu would never let him fall.
They walked in silence. He pretended that she didn’t hear his gasps and grunts. It didn’t matter that Chimípu had seen him at his worst, he had to do his best to keep up with greatest warrior he knew.
“We managed to save Nifùni and Byochína. Nifùni got some nasty bruises and cuts. Byochína needed stitches and will have a few scars to carry to her grave, but otherwise both will survive. We lost most of the money they were carrying. They used a shadow dancer to run away,” her voice tensed, “and I couldn’t catch him. Bastard outran me.”
Rutejìmo glanced at her and saw the tension in her jaw.
Chimípu let out her breath. It sparkled with the flames that rolled off her body. “Tejíko is going to have a vote tomorrow night, when you recover. We need to find another clan to courier for. Otherwise we won’t have enough to pay for the valley’s supplies.”
“Any,” he took a deep breath, “possibilities? We’re already running for most of the surrounding clans.”
“A few chances for more business, but your brother mentioned the biggest. The Kosòbyo are looking for couriers.”
He stumbled. “Kosòbyo? They are on the opposite side of the Mifuno Desert. Why would they want us?”
Chimípu veered to guide Rutejìmo around a sharp-edge hole between two rocks. She wasn’t even breathing hard compared to Rutejìmo’s panting. After a few rods of walking, she answered. “I guess when you are the most powerful clan under Tachìra, your business covers all of Mifúno. They have allies everywhere the sun touches and even a few places where the moon hides.” She pulled a face.
Rutejìmo chuckled. “I also have friends where the moon hides.” As a kojinōmi, he tended the dead for all clans, not only the ones who followed Tachìra but also the ones who gained power from Tachìra’s nemesis and rival, Chobìre.
“You’re not Kosòbyo.” She turned to smile at him. “You are the little brother to most of the desert around here.”
He stopped. “Only to you, Great Shimusogo Chimípu.”
Chimípu pulled her arm away, hovering near him until he regained his balance. Brushing the hair from her face, she looked him over and nodded. Stepping next to him, she gestured toward the valley. “Come on, little brother. Your wife and children are holding dinner for you. And I was invited.”
Only two people called him “little brother,” Chimípu and Rutejìmo’s older brother Desòchu. Normally, not being called by his name was an insult. But from them, it was a term of affection only spoken in private.
Glad for her presence, he headed home knowing that she would catch him if he fell.