My bones ached and spread as we crossed into the grassy flatlands, but I did not stop walking. I set my feet into the red-brown half-moon footprints that Naomi left on the earth in front of me, feeling almost at home in the soft sadness of missing my own monthly blood.
I would wonder later if that nostalgia is what brought on my own blood.
It wasn’t much — not enough to add to Naomi’s footprints. But it was enough to make me summon the healer-foundling once we stopped to rest.
“Sam, come here,” I said. The boy ran to me, his legs swinging coltishly underneath him. He was the human embodiment of a growth spurt, all awkward elbows and skinny ankles.
“Yes, Fisher?” He ducked his head and I frowned.
“Why are you doing that?”
“Bowing,” I said. “People have been doing that lately, when they talk to me. Why? None of you ever bowed to me before.”
Sam rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, I don’t know,” he mumbled. “I guess… ever since Marc got struck by lightning, he’s been going around telling everyone that it’s all real.”
I felt my frown deepen. “So?”
“So…” he shrugged. “So I guess it seems more real now.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I muttered to myself.
“What?” Sam asked. I shook my head.
“Nothing. Sam, I need you to check on the baby. Go get Naomi so she can help tell you what you’re looking at.”
Ever the pliant boy, Sam raced off to find Naomi, my best friend and the woman in charge of our livestock. While he was gone, I breathed deeply and reminded myself that it didn’t matter why people were believing. All that mattered was that they believed. So what if the only thing that made them follow their Prophetess was the testimony of her newly pious husband? I prayed my thanks, although the Gods surely tasted the bitterness in my heart. I was still praying when Sam and Naomi returned.
“Are you all right?” Naomi asked in the same low voice I’d heard her use to calm anxious goats.
“I’m sure I’m fine,” I said, trying to sound calm. “It’s just… I started bleeding around midday, and it hasn’t stopped yet.”
“But she’s not supposed to bleed until after the baby comes,” Sam said, looking to Naomi for verification. Naomi nodded to him, and I looked between the two, wondering what lessons the boy had been learning from her.
“Let’s take a look,” Naomi said. She nodded to Sam, and he rested his palms on my belly. After a moment, I felt the questing, flickering warmth of his gift.
“Is it the same as with the goats?” Sam asked.
Naomi shook her head. “Not quite. Just tell me what you see and we’ll figure it out together, OK?”
Sam nodded slowly, then looked to Naomi with some alarm. “The baby is underwater,” he whispered.
“That’s good,” she said. “Those are the waters of the womb, remember?”
He didn’t answer, frowning. He described everything that he saw and felt. The speed of the baby’s heartbeat, which made Naomi frown. The quiet warmth of my womb, the softening of my joints. The push and pull of my pulse.
After nearly an hour of this, Naomi shook her head. “I don’t know,” she whispered.
“What don’t you know?” I asked. She closed her eyes.
“I don’t know what’s wrong. Maybe a tear in the placenta? I’m not sure.”
I looked to Sam. “Can you fix it?”
He lifted his shoulders. “I don’t know how,” he said.
Naomi twisted a lock of her short, curly hair between two fingers, an old, anxious habit that always grated on my nerves. “How do you feel?”
“Like a dinosaur,” I snapped. “Like a monstrously huge beast that can’t rest because everything is too hot and—” I cut myself off. Shit. I’d promised myself I wouldn’t talk about the dinosaur boneyard I’d found, the Gods Words etched into the ribs of one of the great beasts.
“Um…” Naomi was looking at me as though I’d grown an extra leg out of my forehead. “What?”
“Nevermind,” I said quickly. “Nevermind, I just… I’m tired, is all.”
She stood, dusting off her palms. “Well, you won’t be tired for long,” she said. “We’re staying here. I’ll tell the group that you need to—”
“Wait,” I said, grabbing her leg. “No. Tell them…” I glanced at Sam, who was watching me with rapt attention. “Tell them one of the oxen pulled up lame,” I said, lowering my voice as though that would keep the boy from hearing his Prophetess tell a lie.
Naomi nodded. “Fine,” she said. “But that will only buy us a few days.”
“I’ll figure something out,” I snapped. Naomi left, taking Sam with her.
I rested a palm on the swell of my belly and wondered what unasked-for gift the Gods were trying to give me this time.
I must have fallen asleep in the middle of my prayers. When I opened my eyes, it was dark; my hand still rested over the shifting hill of my baby. Outside of my tent, voices rose and fell like waves crashing on some distant shore.
I struggled to sit up, listened to the voices outside. There was a rumble of wheels, a shout, a thump. By the time I made it to the tentflap and looked outside, the commotion had passed. Sam sat outside of my tent, a fresh bruise swelling under one eye.
“Sam?” I asked. “What’s going on, what happened? Who hit you?”
He raised his fingers to his eye. “They’re leaving,” he said. He looked up at me, tears shining in his eyes.
“Who’s leaving? Where’s Naomi?”
Naomi ran up to me, breathless, Marc trailing behind her. “I’m sorry, Fisher,” she said. “I couldn’t stop them.”
“What happened?” I said. I didn’t realize I’d shouted until I looked at their shocked faces.
“Hanna, Liam, Rand… a few others,” she said. “They’re leaving. They took the seed and water wagons. They said they’ll meet us at the Promised Land.”
“But— no,” I said, “no, they can’t— what?” I felt like I’d swallowed a live bird, like it was frantically beating at the inside of my throat and chest, trying to escape.
“They checked the oxen,” Sam muttered. “They looked and saw that none of them were lame and they said that—”
“Don’t, Sam,” Marc warned. Sam shut his mouth and stared at the ground, sullen.
“But that’s all of our seeds, all of our water, all of the feed for the animals—” my head swam.
“The animals will eat grass, and we’ll find a stream, I’m sure,” Naomi said. “We’re so close, Fisher. We’ll make it.”
I pressed at my temples with the heels of my hands. “We have to,” I whispered. “Just five more months and we’ll be at the Promised Land. The tablets said—”
“The Gods said,” Marc corrected me. “The Gods are leading us to them. Even if there’s no water anywhere between here and the Promised Land, we’ll make it there.” He rested a hand on my shoulder and I leaned into the warmth of his palm.
“Prophetess,” Sam said. I looked up, followed his gaze.
Four dark drops of blood had fallen to the dust between my feet.
“We’ll make it,” Marc said again, his eyes on the sharp crescent of the moon overhead. “Sooner than we know.”
About the author
Hugo and Campbell award finalist Sarah Gailey lives and works in beautiful Oakland, California. Her nonfiction has been published by Mashable and the Boston Globe, and her fiction has been published internationally. She is a regular contributor for Tor.com and Barnes & Noble. You can find links to her work at www.sarahgailey.com. She tweets @gaileyfrey.