What happened to Marc was my fault.
I was tired from a long night of counseling doubters and arbitrating quarrels, but that’s not the point. On the dawn of the day the Prophet died, he told me that it was my fault. “Here’s why you’re nervous, Ducky,” he had said, his voice thick and wet with the fluid that was collecting in his lungs. “You’re nervous because from now on, everything that happens to these people is your fault. You’re their prophet now. You’re the one in charge of guiding them and protecting them.”
He’d closed his eyes then and drawn a long, wincing breath. “You’re right to be nervous,” he’d said.
What happened to Marc was my fault.
I walked into our tent with my hands braced against my back. It felt like the baby was growing fast all of a sudden. It felt like everything that was happening was all of a sudden. Today, out of nowhere, an ache in my spine. What would it be tomorrow?
When I got into the tent, Marc was kneeling in front of the chest that held the sacred tablets. I didn’t interrupt his prayer. I took off the dripping scarf that I’d had wrapped over my hair to keep the rain off, hung it near the brazier to dry. I rubbed my hands together to warm them, listening to the thunder. After a few minutes, I settled onto our sleeping mat. Marc rose from his prayers and lay beside me, resting his palm on the crest of my belly.
“It’s late,” he said.
“Well, I had a lot to do,” I snapped. I lifted his hand from my belly and kissed his palm in immediate apology, our usual way of acknowledging an unwarranted sharp word. He didn’t kiss my knuckles in response. Instead, he pulled his hand back and frowned.
“You should be resting,” he said, propping himself up on one elbow.
I laughed. “I’ll rest in five months,” I said.
His forehead creased. “But the baby is due in two months.”
“…I’ll rest when we reach the Promised Land,” I said, staring at him. He didn’t meet my eyes. “Marc,” I said, and he shook his head, still not looking at me.
“Fisher,” he said quietly. He returned his hand to my belly. I groaned, rubbing my hands across my face.
“No, Marc, no,” I groaned. “I just spent four hours talking to people who don’t think it’s there. You can’t—”
“Well, I’m sorry that it’s hard to talk to your husband at the end of the day,” he said petulantly. The baby pressed a foot to his palm. I rolled away so that he couldn’t feel her reaching for him. It was petty, but it was satisfying.
“Marc, I can’t do this with you,” I said. “You’re my husband. You are the one person here who is supposed to believe in me no matter what.”
“I just think that we should have a backup plan,” he said. “We’re going to have a baby, Fisher—”
“I’m aware of that,” I said. “I’m the one who’s doing all the work—”
“What, I don’t do enough? Is that what you’re—”
“No,” I said, my voice rising, “I just think that it’s a little funny that you’re telling me that we’re having a baby when I’m the one who—”
“No, it’s fine, I understand,” he said, standing. “I hear you loud and clear, Fisher. I have to be the obedient, silent husband, right? While you’re the big important Prophetess, I have to just—”
“Marc, come back to bed,” I said, sitting up and massaging my temples. He reached for the tent flap, ignoring me. “Marc, don’t go out there, the storm is crazy right now—”
“I can’t be here with you right now,” he said softly. “I can’t have this fight with you.”
“Marc,” I called to him — but he was already outside. I heaved myself upright and ran to the tentflap, peeling it open to look out into the storm. The rain fell in sheets, ran in rivulets across the muddy gravel of the rock flats. He was stalking away from the tent, coatless, with his arms wrapped around his middle. “Marc,” I called again. Thunder bellowed overhead, drowning me out. “Marc,” I called one more time — but then, the lightning.
It was my fault.
The light was beyond blinding. For a blessed, Gods-gifted minute, I floated in a numb haze of silence and darkness, like sleep but panicked. I didn’t realize that I was on my back until after the ringing in my ears faded. Then, my vision and my hearing returned, along with the ache in my spine, and I scrambled upright. “Marc!” I was screaming, and I raced outside. “Marc!”
He was flat on his back between my tent and Hanna’s. His head was tipped back, smoking; his mouth gaped wide enough that I could see the dark shadow where he was missing a molar. Hanna, the Huntress, came outside at the sound of my screams.
“What happened to him?” she asked, running to where I was crouched next to my husband’s lifeless, smoking body.
“Lightning,” I said. “We have to get him inside before there’s more, help, please help—” I was pulling on one of his arms, hot tears streaming down my cheeks. Hanna rested a hand on my wrist.
“There won’t be more, Fisher,” she said softly. “The rain’s stopped.”
I looked up. She was right — the clouds were already thinning, showing a few stars among the roiling mass of grey that was the sky.
“It’ll be OK,” she said, but her eyes said something different.
“Get the boy,” I whispered.
“Samuel,” I said. “Get Samuel. Get the boy.”
“Samuel? But why—”
“Just do it,” I said. I crouched beside Marc, held his face in my hands, and prayed until footsteps slapped in the mud behind me. I whirled around to see the boy, Samuel, with his mottled-green eyes and strange, reddish hair. He was staring at Marc with wide, fearful eyes. I looked down at him, drawing myself up to my full height, trying to exude Prophetic authority. Hanna trailed behind the boy, watching me uncertainly.
“What happened to him?” Samuel asked.
“Lightning,” I said. “He was struck by lightning, Samuel. I need you to heal him.”
The boy started shaking his head, looking around as if someone would come and save him from this demand. “I can’t—”
“You can,” I said, “and you will.” I stared at him with my black eyes, and he stared back into them with unmistakable terror. A tear spilled over his cheek.
“Please don’t make me,” he said. “My mother will—” I grabbed his little shaking hands in mine, and he fell silent. He tried to pull away, but I gripped his fingers tight.
Maia burst into my tent, breathless. “Where’s my son?” she said, the fervent fury of a mother in her voice.
“I’m here, Mama,” he said, rising from his place beside the sleeping mat. His arms were covered in a thick coat of foul, sparking white.
“Oh, baby, no,” she whispered. “What have you done?”
“I helped him,” Samuel said, his eyes on the floor. Maia slapped him as fast and hard as the lightning strike that had flattened Marc.
“You know you can’t,” she hissed, gripping Samuel’s shoulder and shaking it. “You know you can’t, they’ll — don’t you remember that happened last time?” Samuel choked on a sob, and Maia turned to me with stark fear. “Please,” she said, “he won’t do it again, please don’t punish him—”
I shook my head, held my hands out to her without touching her. “No,” I said, “You don’t understand — I told him to do it. I made him.”
She blinked at me. “How did you — did he tell you that he could do this?”
“No,” I said quickly, “no, he did it once before — he saved Mischa’s life when we found her last month. I was going to wait until he was older and then find someone to train him as a healer, but tonight…”
All of the air went out of her. “So you’re not going to make us leave?”
I rested a hand on her shoulder, gentle as I could manage, and spoke softly. “Why would we make you leave?”
“Because of Samuel’s curse,” she said, her voice breaking as a shiver passed through her.
From behind her, a low voice rasped. “No. Not a curse.”
We all looked to Marc. Blood vessels in his eyes had burst, staining the whites red. “Not a curse,” he said again. “Never a curse.” He reached for Samuel, rested a hand on the boy’s calf. “The Gods give only gifts, Samuel. You are beloved of the Gods, and they have given you a great gift. Pray your thanks.”
I fell to my knees. I touched Marc’s face, his throat, his chest. I whispered his name, had no idea how to say what needed saying.
“Fisher,” he said, grasping one of my hands. Behind me, Maia was murmuring to Samuel, something low and firm. I knew I’d need to talk to both of them later, to plan how to develop the boy’s gift, but for now, there was only Marc, alive. Alive. “Prophetess,” he said. He coughed, and I tried not to weep.
“Marc, I’m sorry—”
He shook his head. “I saw them, Prophetess.”
I blinked at him. “What?”
“I saw them,” he said. “I saw the Promised Land. I saw the Gods. It’s real, it’s all real.”
“You — what?” I said. “You saw the Promised Land?”
“Help me up,” he said. “I have to pray. I have to pray thanks. It was beautiful, Fisher. They’re — they’re amazing. Like clouds, like plums, like moons… like nothing you’ve ever seen. I have to pray thanks. Help.” He started trying to struggle upright. I rested a hand on his chest, pushed him down.
“Pray later,” I said. “Marc, you were struck by lightning. You need rest. You almost died.”
He shook his head. “The Gods send only gifts,” he murmured. “The Gods send only gifts.”
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.