Margot shivered again. She wouldn’t stop shivering.
I worried at my lower lip and put another blanket over her. Outside of the tent, a child shrieked, and answering footfalls spoke to a game of chase or tag or perhaps just “run run run.” The sound of their game faded fast, and soon, all I could hear was Margot, the healer, breathing hard and shallow. I waited until her eyelids drifted shut before sliding my sandals on and slipping out through the tentflap.
I blinked into the grey light of the morning mist, wiping sweat from my brow. The wispy fog that clung to the camp rendered the day eerily quiet — the crunch of the gravel under my sandals seemed overloud. The running children were already well out of earshot. I passed dewdrop-covered tents, the families inside enjoying a morning’s rest. The transition from the sands to the rock flats had been a taxing one, steep and arduous. Two wagons had thrown wheels, and the seed-wagon’s axle had split, and we’d had to slaughter a good ox after his leg fractured under the strain of the climb. Everyone was tired, snippy. I’d already decided to take a day’s rest, even before Margot had gotten sick.
“Please, please, please preserve her,” I prayed under my breath. “Please.”
The Gods did not answer.
“Are you talking to yourself?” A face appeared out of the mist, and I smiled even as I saw my friend’s eyes flick away from mine. Naomi still wasn’t used to the Gods Sight. I couldn’t blame her.
“It sure feels like it sometimes,” I said. “What are you doing up?”
“Checking the oxen,” she said, running a hand through her short cap of tight blonde curls. They had relaxed into loose waves while we were on the sands, but the low-slung clouds on the rock flats had sprung them back into spirals, and I couldn’t help thinking the humidity suited her. “If we lose another one, we’ll have to abandon a wagon.”
She looked at me, her mouth pinched with expectation, and I realized that she wasn’t talking to me as her friend. She was talking to me as her Prophetess. “Oh,” I said, blinking a few times. “Oh, right. We, uh, we would probably need to abandon the children’s wagon, right?”
She gave me a gentle smile. “We abandoned that one when we came down the mountain into the sands,” she said softly. I chastised myself for missing that — but then I remembered with a start that when we’d come down the mountain into the sands, my father had begun to die. “I think we’d need to consider consolidating the water wagon and the seed wagon.”
I laughed, a short, sharp bark that was swallowed by the mist. “I’ll let you be the one to tell Liam that,” I said, and her smile twitched. I cleared my throat. “Is there anything that can be done to keep us from losing an animal? We only have to stretch them for nine more months.” I tried hard to keep a note of pleading from entering my voice.
“Is that guaranteed?” she murmured, and if she hadn’t been my best friend — but then I remembered that I was the Prophetess, and that I had a job to do.
“It is written,” I said, gentle but stern. “It will come to pass. Nine more months.”
“Right,” she said. “Sorry.” She still wouldn’t meet my eyes.
I suppressed a sigh. “So, anything I can do to help get us there?”
“I’d like to have Margot take a look at a few of the beasts,” she said.
“Margot’s sick,” I said. “She’s — I don’t think she’s up for it.”
“Sick?” Naomi’s brow creased. “Margot can’t get sick. Healers never get sick.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s… I shouldn’t go into details, but.” But it looks bad. But I don’t know how to fix it. But I’m afraid. “But I can’t make her come do an exam.”
Naomi waved her hand, tossing her curls. “She’s probably just tired,” she said. “We’re all tired, Fisher. You can send her over once she’s rested, yeah? I’ve done what I can for the animals, but it’s hard to identify weaknesses in the bones and I’m worried about—”
“She can’t help you,” I interrupted. Her mouth snapped shut with a click of teeth. “Is there anything else?”
Her nostrils flared, and a muscle jumped in her jaw several times before she finally bit out an answer. “I suppose you could pray, Prophetess.”
I nodded. “I always do.”
The mist was still low by the time I came back to Margot’s tent. A bowl of broth steamed in my hand, a match to the one that warmed my belly. A few precious shreds of uncured ox haunch floated in the bowl, my own ration as well as Margot’s. The majority of the animal was already packed in salt, but this, at least, we could spare.
I knelt at the edge of the healer’s sleeping mat, balancing the broth in one hand. I touched the back of my hand to her forehead in a vague echo of a fuzzy childhood memory: my mother’s cool fingers on my own blazing cheeks.
Except that Margot’s skin wasn’t blazing. She’d been shivering all night, grappling with an untenable fever, reminding me more of my father with every passing moment — but now, her forehead was cool. Her fever had broken.
“Thank the Gods,” I whispered, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Relief and fatigue made me suddenly giddy. I set the bowl down beside her and sprang up to find Naomi, to tell her that Margot would be able to check the beasts of burden the next day, once she’d finished recovering. But as I reached for the tentflap, something shifted in my belly. I pressed my palm to the shallow rise of my abdomen, and felt the shift again — the bottom dropping out of a bottle, the brush of a finger against my cheek in the night. Gods Whispers rose around me like the crashing of waves.
I turned around and looked to Margot again. My eyes slid away from her face, and I looked at the bowl of broth next to her. Steam no longer rose from the surface of the bowl. A chill passed through the room.
It was the chill of a light extinguishing.
I looked back at Margot. Slowly, I stepped back toward her. My breathing was loud inside the tent, too loud. I inhaled deeply through my nose and then did not breathe again.
The Gods Whispers ceased. The tent was silent.
“Oh,” I whispered. “Oh, no.” I reached for Margot’s cool, clammy face. Her skin still felt like skin; her cheeks were the same shade of brown that they had been before she took ill. I pressed a finger to the underside of her jaw, to the inside of her wrist. I pressed my ear to her chest, and when I lifted my head, two broad dark tearstains marked the sheet that covered her.
I sat back on my heels and stared at the dead healer, and waited for Gods Whispers to return and guide me. I waited for them to tell me what to do, how to proceed, how to tell my people that the only healer in their midst was gone.
But the Gods Whispers did not come.
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.