“Please O Gods, reveal unto me your wisdom.”
I spoke the words with sincerity in my heart as I prepared to open the chest that contained the Word of the Gods. It was a prayer that I was meant to repeat before looking at the tablets, although my father had told me once that forgetting the prayer didn’t prevent the Gods Sight from working.
I dipped my fingers into the divot in the top of the chest and touched them to my tongue. The Prophet — my father — had carved it, along with the rest of the chest, according to a vision sent by the Gods on the eve of his first step out of the city. He had carved it by moonlight, with Gods Whispers in his ears and prayers in his heart, and the Gods themselves had guided his hands. The divot in the top of the chest described a perfect hemisphere, and was filled at all times with water, and it was by the work of the Gods that not a drop ever spilled. Not when we climbed into the mountain passes; not when the earth itself shook beneath our feet. Never.
This was known to the people of the pilgrimage, and the story was never far from their minds. How could it be? They saw the chest every time we moved it from tent to wagon and back again, and the wood was worn smooth from the reverent touches they laid upon it whenever it was within reach. They knew that the tablets were inside the chest, and that it had been shaped by the shared intention of the Prophet and the Gods.
But they didn’t know the final miracle of the chest. They didn’t know that the water in the divot — the water which was freshened from my own waterskin every time that use and evaporation lowered the level to a shallow pool — landed salty on my tongue. Not the salt of my fingers, this; no. This was the thick, acid brine of the Gods’ own tears.
The Prophet had explained it to me after I’d first prayed over the tablets. He’d said that the Gods were weeping for us, that they wept every time the sun rose and we were still not home in the Promised Land. He said that the taste of the saltwater was a reminder: the Gods are waiting.
As the bitterness faded from my tongue, the baby stirred in my belly. I pressed one hand to the chest that held the tablets, and said my prayer one more time before lifting the lid.
The tablets rested inside, wrapped in linen and pillowed on a bed of clean, dry timothy grass. They were ragged at the ends, broken pieces of massive bones, carved across the full breadth of their surfaces with trailing Gods Words. They were lighter than they looked.
I lifted the second tablet out, ignoring the first — the things predicted on that one had already come to pass.
“Please, O Gods,” I whispered, “in your wisdom and mercy. Please tell me you have a plan to find us a new healer.” Gods Whispers rustled as though from a great distance, and a shiver of worry hissed along the back of my neck.
I unwrapped the tablet and let my eyes fall to the etched bone.
To anyone without the Gods Sight — including me, until the night my father died — the markings looked like irregular, trailing scratches. But I could read them. By the grace of the Gods, through the Gods Sight gift my father had passed on to me before his death, I could read them.
I scanned the tablet over and over. I saw rain and loss and conflict and pain, but nothing about the loss of our healer. Nothing about how I was supposed to birth this baby without the help of a midwife.
“Please,” I started to pray again, “please oh Gods, please, please—” but then there were gravel-crunching footsteps outside, running fast, and I barely had time to cover the tablet with linen before someone was bursting into my tent.
“Fisher— oh, Gods, I’m sorry.” Rand, the child-minder, pulled up short, his sandals scuffing on the floor of my tent.
“It’s fine, Rand,” I said, carefully wrapping the tablet and placing it back into the chest. I closed the lid, slowly, reverently. I rose to my feet, wrapping my shawl more tightly around my shoulders to fight the chill of the rock flats, and faced him. “What is it?”
“We’ve lost one of the children,” he said. His face was grey with fear. “We’ve looked everywhere, but she’s gone. Mischa, Pinar’s girl… she disappeared this morning while the children were playing look-and-find, and I can’t—”
“Has a search party already been formed?” I asked briskly, already wrapping my feet in a few layers of wool. Rand wasn’t wearing his — his feet were bare in his sandals, and his toes were white from the cold and the damp. I threw a roll of wrappings to him, and he wrapped his feet as he answered.
“Yes,” he said, “and they’re out in the flats now. I don’t know if we’ll find the girl, though, the fog is so thick—”
“We’ll find her,” I said. But I remembered the loss that was written on the tablets, and I wondered if this was what the Gods were warning me about.
“But, Prophetess,” he said, his voice as soft as secrets. “I don’t think she wandered off by accident, see?”
“What do you mean?” I whispered back, drawn in by the hush of his voice.
“I mean,” he said, looking around as though there were ears inside my tent, “that I think maybe she was taken.”
I laughed before I could stop myself, a short, sharp bark of surprise. “Taken? By who? Who would take a child?”
Rand was not amused, and his brow darkened. “Them you named last month, Fisher,” he said grimly. “The outsiders. Everyone knows that Northerners have…” he paused significantly. “Appetites.”
I threw an extra cloak over my shoulders, then made for the tentflap. Rand did not move out of my way, and I stared up at him with as much patience as I could muster. Rand was an ox of a man, perfect for child-minding, but he was stubborn, too.
“The outsiders,” I repeated. “The outsiders, meaning, the woman and child we brought in?” He nodded. “The child being the one that you watch, the boy who’s been helping feed the babies every day? And the woman being the one who taught your Magda how to bake a loaf without burning it? Those outsiders?”
Rand’s jaw worked for a moment as he considered whether to dig in his heels. I could see him weighing his fear against his conscience.
“I don’t trust them,” he said. “They’re not our people. I’m telling you, they’re responsible for this.”
I fastened my cloak and pushed past him. “Save your blame, Rand. There’s no time now. I’ve got to talk to Pinar, and you’ve got to find Mischa. Go on.”
At that moment, a wail rang out across the camp. I winced. It was unmistakably Pinar, Mischa’s father. The news of his daughter’s disappearance had reached him before I could. I bit back a curse and stepped out into the fog.
“Come on,” I called back to Rand. “Let’s find her.”
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.