There are no words shared between horse and human, but I can hear them as close as any lover's whisper.
— Pabinkue Tsubàyo
There was no wind on Rutejìmo's face, and his feet weren't touching the ground. He gasped as he tore himself out of unconsciousness. His broken fingernails scraped against the rocks as he tried to push himself to his feet and start running again.
“Keep him down,” snapped Mikáryo.
A strong hand caught Rutejìmo in the chest and shoved him back down into the softness of a sleeping roll.
“N-No, I have…” He coughed, wincing at the hoarseness of his breath and the burn of acid in the back his throat. “… can't stop. I can't!” He pawed at the hand, not seeing the man who held him down but feeling the muscular grip that held him down.
“Stay down, Jìmo.” It was the man speaking. The pressure on his chest increased, but Rutejìmo continued to flail. And then he felt a knee drive into his thigh, pinning him down as the other hand caught his shoulder. “Down!”
Rutejìmo sobbed. “P-Poison, I can't—”
“You aren't going to die tonight, I promise,” said Mikáryo as she knelt next to him.
Between his gasping, he could hear the crunch of sand as it compacted under her weight. He clutched for her, his hands pawing against her until he realized he was touching bare thigh close to her hip. She was warm compared to the cool air around her.
She chuckled. “No, hold on. Just grip there.”
He obeyed, fingers digging into her flesh until he felt her hip bone. Moments later, his strength faded and his hand slumped down.
“There you go. You aren't going die.”
“Tonight at least,” amended the other man. It sounded like Tsubàyo, a former member of the Shimusògo clan who tried to sacrifice Rutejìmo to Mikáryo. But that was over fifteen years ago, and both of their lives had gone separate ways.
“Yeah, Jìmo. It's me.”
“W-Why can't I see?”
Mikáryo leaned into him, and he felt the rim of a cup pressed to his lip. “Here, drink this. It's going to taste horrid.”
Rutejìmo opened his cracked lips and hot liquid flowed into his mouth. It was coppery and sharp. He choked on it, sputtering as it overflowed his mouth.
“Sit him up,” commanded Mikáryo.
Tsubàyo got off Rutejìmo and pulled him into a sitting position.
Rutejìmo saw movement in his right eye as the vision started to clear. In his stomach, the heat pooled with a comforting warmth.
“Here, drink some more. Your vision will come back a little.”
“W-What about—” He gulped and then gasped as the liquid coated his aching throat on its way down. “—the poison?”
“It's still there, but Bàpo will hold it at bay for the night. It will still be there in the morning, but by then you'll be running and you won't feel it.”
“B-Bàpo? Who is Bàpo?”
“Her horse,” said Tsubàyo as his grip on Rutejìmo's shoulder increased. “Now shut up and drink the sun-damned blood.”
Rutejìmo felt his stomach clench. “B-Blood?”
“Bàyo,” said Mikáryo in a sharp voice, “he didn't have to know that.”
“He's just going to whimper as soon as he sees it. He is pathetic that way.”
Rutejìmo's vision came back slowly. He looked up to see Tsubàyo kneeling next to him. He was older than Rutejìmo but only by a few years. As a child, burning oil had scarred his face and right shoulder. Over a decade of riding in the desert had deepened the disfigurements with sharp edges and deep furrows.
Tsubàyo looked down at Rutejìmo. “Drink, Jìmo, it's the only thing keeping you alive. I'd rather Bàpo's sacrifice didn't go unheeded.”
Rutejìmo nodded and opened his mouth, still staring at Tsubàyo. When he felt the rim of the cup pressed against his lips, he gulped deeply and tried not to think about the source of the heat or the comfort he gained from a creature's blood.
Tsubàyo had stripped down to his loin cloth. Hard muscles defined his body but Rutejìmo saw scores of fading scars along his arms and shoulders. One of them bisected his scar tissue, creating a ridge between the bottom and upper half. A discoloration remained at the end of the cut, it looked like a blade had been left in the wound.
Rutejìmo drank deeply as he focused on Tsubàyo's scars.
“There you go,” said Mikáryo as she drained the last of the cup into Rutejìmo. “That should keep you with us for another hour.” There was a scuff of the cup being set down and then strong fingers caught Rutejìmo's chin.
Mikáryo tilted his head toward her, and Rutejìmo let her. The vision in one eye scanned along the ground, pausing when he saw Mikáryo's massive black horse on his side, sides heaving with labored breath. He felt a pang of sadness, and then he was looking at her.
She looked just like he remembered from five years ago, except for more wrinkles and gray strands in her black hair. Her skin was dark brown with black horse tattoos covering every inch except for a few bare areas. Like Tsubàyo, she had stripped down to her breast strap and a loin cloth, but Rutejìmo knew what she looked like underneath even the thin fabric covering her. She was his first in many ways.
Mikáryo cupped Rutejìmo's chin with both hands, peering at him with her green eyes. “One eye is ruined, isn't it?”
“I-I can't see out of it.”
“The poison has filled it. Can you run with one eye?”
He nodded. “I-I have been for almost a day now.”
“Good. I hope whoever did this got what they deserved.”
Rutejìmo remembered the look of horror on Dimóryo's face as the sand swallowed her. “I… I think I killed her.”
Tsubàyo snorted back a laugh.
Mikáryo glanced at him and then back. “I have trouble believing that.”
“S-She killed—” He sobbed at the memory. Tears burned his eyes as he inhaled sharply, his shoulders shaking as he tried to hold in his sorrow.
Mikáryo pulled him to her chest, her hard body somehow giving comfort to him as much as her breasts.
He shook as he wrapped his arms around her and sobbed. “She killed Pábyo. Tort… tortured her. And… I… was so angry, and I couldn't do anything.” The words came out in bursts, punctuated by wet gasping. He was weak, and it was his only hope.
“And you killed her?”
“I… asked the desert to declare her dead.”
Mikáryo stiffened under his grip.
“And the sun… and the moon.” He sobbed and closed his eyes. “And the wind. And then she lost her powers… and then the ground swallowed her up.”
Tsubàyo groaned. “Oh, sun fuck me in the eye.”
Mikáryo took a deep breath and wrapped her arms around Rutejìmo. “You killed her, Rutejìmo.”
“He didn't kill her!” Tsubàyo snapped, “He created a nibonyāchu. A demon. How—”
“Bàyo!” Mikáryo rested her head on Rutejìmo's shoulder. “It's okay. You killed her, and she is going to suffer for the rest of time for what she did.”
Rutejìmo let out a long gasp and slumped against Mikáryo, the strength flooding out of him.
“I…” He thought about what he did. “I didn't know what else to do.”
“No, for a murdered wife, that was appropriate,” said Mikáryo. “Though most husbands just stab the killer, not doom them to endless suffering and torture.”
Mikáryo lifted her head. “You would have done the same thing, Bàyo.”
“She wasn't murdered.”
Rutejìmo stiffened. He tried to remember Tsubàyo's wife's name. He did, though he was drunk when Mikáryo told him. Lifting his head, he turned to look at Tsubàyo. “Rojikinomi Fimúchi? You lost her?”
Tsubàyo's eyes widened and then he looked at Mikáryo. “You know her?”
“Káryo,” he remembered that Mikáryo insisted on familiar names, “told me about her. And you had three children.”
Tsubàyo's expression softened. “She died last year, in childbirth. For our sixth.” He ducked his head. “We lost the girl too.”
Rutejìmo sniffed. “I'm sorry.” He held out his hand. “It hurts.”
The expression hardened. “What would you know?”
“I lost my first child, a boy, the day Gemènyo died.”
Tsubàyo froze, his face paling. “Mènyo? How? He was… the only one nice to me.”
Rutejìmo choked on the memories. “I…”
Mikáryo squeezed him. “Go on, it's going to be a long night, and you can't sleep.”
He looked back at her. When she shook her head, he resigned himself to a long night and turned back to Tsubàyo. Closing his eyes, he dredged up the painful memories and started his tale at the point Mikáryo rejected him for the last time.
It took him hours to speak, punctuated only by Mikáryo going to the horse's body to draw more blood. Rutejìmo wanted to ask what she was doing to the creature, but she pushed him to keep speaking about his life and the subtle way she changed the topic told him the question would never be answered.
He told the two more about his life than anyone besides Mapábyo knew. Of the loss of his child, what he did when cast out of his clan, and even the struggles to learn and perform the purification rituals. With her prodding, he even went into the details of the deaths he had seen and the growing realization that he was connected to Mifúno long before this journey.
When he finished, he felt drained—but also relieved. A weight had been removed from his shoulders. He took a deep breath, thankful that whatever Mikáryo gave him had eased his throat, and looked up at Tsubàyo who sat across from him while Mikáryo cradled him with her body.
Rutejìmo sighed. “I… I don't know what else to say.”
“Do you think,” asked Tsubàyo, “that being a kojinōmi is really like being a warrior? That you're going to die serving her?”
“And yet you never gave up.”
“I… couldn't. Now, I'm trying to save my children and my clan.”
“But, you're going to die.” Tsubàyo's eyes glittered in the light of a small fire.
Behind Rutejìmo, Mikáryo's grip on his side tightened.
Rutejìmo nodded again.
“Well, that makes things difficult.” Tsubàyo stood up and walked into the darkness.
Rutejìmo watched him leave, a prickle of discomfort rising. He felt it gathering in his shoulders and his stomach.
Mikáryo pulled him down against her chest. “Don't mind him. He's just struggling with something we were told to do.”
He leaned into her and drank from the offered cup. It was stallion blood, but there were herbs and powders that Mikáryo added to it. It didn't stop the poison, but it halted its ravaging of his body.
Mikáryo set down the cup and wrapped her arms around Rutejìmo. “It's easy to accept a command to kill a man you know when you're still angry.”
Rutejìmo's body tensed.
“It's harder when you've walked a mile in his footsteps. Your story reminded Bàyo that you aren't much different than him.”
“You were told to kill me?”
Mikáryo squeezed him as an answer.
“Not the Shimusògo? Not the others?”
“No, the elders of Pabinkúe were quite specific. Shimusogo Rutejìmo. You are the first, last, and only one to make it this far. The others have already been killed, so Kosòbyo thinks that if they stop you here, their secret will be safe.”
Rutejìmo closed his eyes.
“I'm not going to kill you, Jìmo.”
“Why not? Your clan demanded it.”
She squeezed him again and leaned forward to rest her head against his. “I care more about my shit than I do about my clan. They are my family and my elders, but that doesn't mean I agree with them.”
“Won't they be angry?”
“Yes. They may even kill me for this, but I'm still going to do it.”
“Because you are…” She smiled. “… pathetic. Helpless. I still see that little boy peeing his trousers as he tried so hard to be brave.”
“And then again when Bàyo tried to sacrifice you to save his own life. But, even then, I saw a strength in you. It went beyond the whimpering—”
“—and the peeing—”
Rutejìmo squirmed in discomfort.
“—and the whining—”
“I get the point.”
She smirked. “—there was just something that I saw in you. Maybe it was the thing Chyòbi told you about.”
It took Rutejìmo a heartbeat to realized she was talking about Wamifuko Gichyòbi.
She chuckled. “I think it is something else. You had spirit and determination. You made a lot of mistakes, but you also kept trying.”
Rutejìmo settled back down. He took a deep breath and winced at the ache in his body. He was going to die soon, but it only tempered the gift of having one more night to live. “I'm a coward.”
“Says the man who walked into a plague valley, risked his brother killing him to save his clan, or even kept running into danger because his boy and girl needed him. I don't know where you got the idea that you're a coward, Jìmo, because you aren't. You are just as strong as the rest of us, maybe stronger since most people would let their weakness define them.”
“I am weak.”
“And yet you aren't known as the weakest Shimusògo. Around here, you are Rutejìmo, the kojinōmi who treats the day and night as allies. The one who somehow bridged the gap between Tachìra and Chobìre and became one of the few Mifúno to ever exist.”
“I really am Mifúno?”
She chuckled. “Mifúno is a wonderful but vengeful mother. If you spoke for her without her permission, you would have died before the words left your lips. I couldn't even joke about it, but you did. The Pabinkúe heard rumors of you speaking for Mifúno long before the Kosòbyo came to us with an offer of power and money.”
Rutejìmo took a deep breath. He felt warm in her grasp and dreaded the moment he would have to run.
“Why did they take it?”
“Because of… Bàyo, I think.”
“He didn't tell you this, but when his wife was dying, he asked me to find you.”
“But, Múchi's father fought against that. And as elder of the Rojikinòmi, his weight held much more sway than Bàyo's. It came to blows and Bàyo lost. He was chained in the caves when Múchi and the girl died. Her father released him when it became grim, but it was too late. Both of them knew, though, that I could have found you before they lost her. And,” Mikáryo sighed and wrapped her arms around Rutejìmo's chest for a long moment, “I think they both blame you for not being there.”
“H… How could I?”
“It doesn't matter. Losing a daughter or a wife poisons the heart. Neither could stab the other, so they used you as the safe target for her loss.”
“But, why did Bàyo ask?”
Tsubàyo approached and sat down heavily. “Because, despite what was between us, I respect you above all other kojinōmi. You spoke with your heart, and you never gave up. And, just like Káryo, I kept looking for you—”
“Bàyo!” snapped Mikáryo.
“—every time we entered Wamifuko City, because we both ended up caring about you.”
“He didn't have to know that.”
Tsubàyo raised an eyebrow at her.
“Horse-thief,” muttered Mikáryo as she leaned back.
“Outcast,” replied Tsubàyo with a grin.
Rutejìmo stared at them both, then lifted his head to look at her. “But, you cast me aside. I wanted to go with you and you… threw me away.”
Mikáryo sighed, and her eyes sparkled in the light. “Because you couldn't go where I needed to go. But that doesn't mean I didn't love you.”
“Jìmo, you had to find your own path. And you did. Look at where you are, at what you've done. You wouldn't have found that among the Pabinkúe, and I knew it.”
Rutejìmo bowed his head.
“I do love you. And I still do, which is why I'm here and not bringing your head to the Kosòbyo like they demanded.”
The back of his throat tickled, and he coughed. And then again. When he pulled his hand back, there was fresh blood on it.
Mikáryo stood up and hurried toward her horse. Rutejìmo watched as she knelt by her favorite stallion's throat and he felt a pang of sadness. The horse shuddered and then slumped down.
Rutejìmo bowed his head, mouthing a prayer to Mifúno for the horse's sacrifice.
She came back with tears in her eyes and a fresh cup. “Come, drink this, and I will tell you some stories. We still have a long night, and we have to keep you up.”