One can be told a tale endless times, but it doesn't make it true. Experience it once, and it will be learned forever.
— Desert proverb
Spinning on one foot, Rutejìmo ducked underneath Nifùni's stick. He didn't move fast enough, and the wood clipped the top of his skull. Even though they were sparring, Nifùni's blow rang Rutejìmo's ears. He lost his momentum and dropped to a knee, wincing as the pain shot up his leg. Desperate to avoid a second strike, he thrust his tazágu up. The steel weapon had no edge and only a sharp tip. It whistled through the air before he brought it to a halt where he expected the blow to come from.
No impact ran through his hand. No blow smacked him in the back or side.
Rutejìmo looked up, his eyes coming into focus.
Nifùni had stepped back to bring his stick into a parry position. The younger man, in his mid-twenties, had a mask of rage on his face. He stepped back and shook his head violently. The strands of his black hair clung to the recent wound that cut a line from his forehead to his cheek. Even after two weeks, the cut hadn't fully healed from when the robber's attack.
From a rock a few yards away, Desòchu grunted. “What's wrong, Nifùni?”
Stepping back, Nifùni swung his stick haphazardly at Rutejìmo before tossing it aside. “No… no more. I'm not fighting against anyone who has a real weapon.”
Desòchu stood up from a wide rock and brushed off his orange trousers. He had stripped off his shirt after they made camp. The lines of his pectorals and abdomen were well-defined and covered in scars from years of fighting, the gray hair curled between the scars flowing with his movements. His left arm had a scar that ran from his thumb to his shoulder, and more lines crisscrossed his stomach, shoulders, and neck.
He jumped off the rock, and his bare feet crunched in the sand. He strolled over to where Rutejìmo and Nifùni were sparring. “Why not? We all need practice.”
Nifùni gestured angrily at Rutejìmo. “Why does he get to fight with a real weapon, and I get… I'm fighting with a stick from one of the sand-cursed tents! He could kill me with that… that thing!”
Desòchu shook his head. “No, you are in more danger of getting bit by sand flies than Jìmo hurting you.”
Rutejìmo straightened up and wiped the sweat from his brow. His tazágu shook in his grip. Unlike the reds and oranges the entire clan wore, the leather of his weapon had been dyed black and blue by its original owner. Rutejìmo had engraved a Shimusògo name along the length of the blade when he first blooded it, but the rest of the weapon came from another clan, one that gained power from the moon instead of the sun.
“That's a lethal weapon!”
“Yes,” said Desòchu, “but he's also been using it for fifteen years.”
Nifùni snorted and gestured at Rutejìmo. His shirt clung to his sweat-soaked chest, and he peeled it off with the movement. “And he hasn't killed anyone in all that time. All he does is run away whenever someone even says a strong word! He's a moon-bleached, sand-damned coward who can barely keep his bladder under control, much less swing a weapon!”
From a few rods away, the other clan members looked up. Mapábyo knelt by the fire and stirred a small pot of food. Chimípu sat next to her while she cooked thin strips of meat with an alchemical flame.
The third was Byochína, the other courier attacked a few weeks before. She only wore a white band over her breasts and a pair of orange shorts, making the fading cuts and scars along her bare arms more visible. Her back still glistened with sweat from her high-speed sprint around their campsite after they stopped.
The others, except for Rutejìmo and Chimípu, were also sweaty from their exercises after the clan stopped for the night. One by one, they took the opportunity to circle around the campsite and run as fast as they could. Even Mapábyo, who had paced Rutejìmo for five years, needed a half hour to let it all out.
Rutejìmo was the only one who didn't need to run, since he spent the entire day racing at his fastest and pushing his furthest limits.
Even though Chimípu also took her chance to run, she wasn't exhausted or even sweaty. She could easily run ten times Rutejìmo's speed without breathing hard. He didn't even think she knew her own limits, and she had done feats of magic greater than any other warrior of the Shimusògo.
Rutejìmo felt the familiar burn of jealousy and pushed it down. He would never be a hero or legend. He turned away and looked at his brother.
Desòchu stretched, his muscles rippling, as he stopped next to Rutejìmo. “Well, little brother, think you still need to spar? Even if,” he shot a glance at Nifùni, “you aren't going to actually hurt me?”
Breath quickening with the anticipation of sparring his warrior brother, Rutejìmo nodded. He adjusted his grip on his weapon. There wasn't much danger of hurting Desòchu. The tazágu only had a single sharp point; otherwise, it was smooth metal—a weapon designed for precise strokes and parrying. An ideal defensive weapon for Rutejìmo, who had never taken a life and hated violence.
Desòchu stepped forward and attacked. His primary weapon was a long dagger but Rutejìmo had sparred against it many times over the years, and they were both used to its length.
Rutejìmo parried with his weapon. The impact of the blow caused his weapon to ring out.
After a brief pause, Desòchu grinned and attacked again. The strikes quickly became a steady rhythm of impacts that shook Rutejìmo's arm.
Rutejìmo managed to keep up with his brother, but his body shook with the effort. At first, he only fell back from some strikes, but soon he was at full retreat. Sand and rocks kicked up around them with their movements and they broke out of the rod-length circle that marked the normal sparring area.
A translucent feather sailed across Rutejìmo's face with one of Desòchu's attacks. The blows came faster and then suddenly broke from the rhythm. Rutejìmo fought back a whimper as he twisted his body to dodge as much as he parried. Sweat burned his eyes in a matter of seconds. One wide sweep almost caught his ankles, but Rutejìmo jumped over it and rolled to the side. He came up in a fighting stance against the rocks.
Desòchu didn't give him a chance to catch his breath.
Rutejìmo let out a cry and parried with all his might. He met each blow with the limits of his strength. The impacts tore up his arm and reminded him that he had spent the last eight hours running at his limit. Exhaustion tore at his body, and the air wheezed from his throat, but he kept fighting back.
With a snarl, Desòchu's body exploded into golden flames. The slashes became streaked with gold and light.
Somehow Rutejìmo managed to keep up, though his strength rapidly dissipated. He missed one blow and his brother's knife scored a line along his arm. Rutejìmo screamed out and swung back, fighting against the agony of the cut that sliced into him.
Desòchu continued to rain attacks on him, the flash of his weapon becoming a burning blade that shattered the rock behind Rutejìmo and left a trail of feathers and fire behind.
Rutejìmo doggedly parried even as more of Desòchu's attacks got through.
And then, Desòchu's attacks suddenly stopped. The sharp point of Rutejìmo's tazágu swung at his brother's bare throat.
Panic exploded inside Rutejìmo. He reversed his swing. His muscles screamed out in agony as he wrenched his body around. He felt muscles tearing and the sweat-soaked grip of his weapon threatening to slip from his hands. He turned and slammed himself into the rock behind him. His tazágu slipped from his hand. He quickly joined it as he slumped to the ground.
Rutejìmo let out a sob, his body trembling from his exhaustion and the horror of almost hurting someone flashing through his mind. It didn't matter if it was his brother or a stranger, the idea of taking a life brought a violent twisting in his gut.
As the sob burst out of his throat, he slumped forward.
“And that,” Desòchu said calmly, “is why I trust him. Do you have a problem with this, courier?”
Rutejìmo looked up to see Desòchu glaring at Nifùni. The use of a label instead of a name was a quiet insult.
Nifùni's face twisted into a scowl. His sweat ran along the furrows along his brow. “He's your brother.”
Desòchu held up his weapon to show Rutejìmo's blood dripping down the length. “I don't hold back. And neither does Rutejìmo.” Desòchu frowned and stepped forward. “I once made the same mistake you make now. I took Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo's reluctance to be cowardice. I told myself for years that he was weak and helpless. But you know what he did to change that?”
“What?” Nifùni glance at Rutejìmo, his eyes narrowed in anger.
“He died. For a year, he was dead to me—”
Rutejìmo's spiritual death was for the entire clan, but he didn't correct his brother.
Desòchu took another step forward. “And then I saw what he had become. He is stronger than I thought, than any of us thought. He carries a burden that we don't understand and he does it with silence, not violence.”
Planting his hand on the rock, Rutejìmo forced himself to his feet. When he regained his balance, he left a bloody smear on the rock. For a long moment, he stared at the hand-print before stepping away from the rock and turning back to his brother who was still talking.
“And if I ever hear you call him a coward again—”
“Desòchu!” snapped Chimípu, interrupting him. She stood near the food. One hand rested on her own sword.
Desòchu looked at her and then sighed. He stepped back with a growl. “Just watch him, Nifùni. You'll see it. We all do at some point.”
He looked at Rutejìmo with a silent question.
Rutejìmo pressed a hand against a sharp cut on the side of his arm and nodded.
Desòchu took a step and then disappeared in a burst of wind. Dust pulled after him, creating a cloud that sucked along the trail of his passing.
Rutejìmo closed his eyes as the wind peppered his aching body with sand and small rocks. He felt the sharp burning of his cuts, thankful for Desòchu's skill at fighting. The slashes were shallow and superficial, enough to draw blood without leaving serious injuries. It still hurt, and he fought against the urge to whimper.
When the wind died down, Rutejìmo opened his eyes. Nifùni was storming away, and Mapábyo approached with a roll of bandages.
“I see you,” she whispered.
“I see you.”
She pressed him against the rock and kissed him fiercely. “And you,” she whispered, “are a sand-damned idiot for letting yourself get hurt when we still have a week of running until we get to Kosobyo Valley.”
He chuckled and kissed her back, wrapping his arms around her waist. “Yes, but I had to show him that I wasn't a coward.”
Mapábyo broke the kiss and stared into Rutejìmo's face. “This isn't the way to show it. You demonstrate it every day, every night. You show it when you come back from tending the dead and when you always run at your limit. Nifùni will see it, sooner or later.”
Rutejìmo nodded, but it wasn't Nifùni's accusation that played in his head. It was Kitòpi's single question echoing endlessly, asking if he was a coward.