I held Pinar’s hand as he wept for his daughter.
“I’m sorry,” I said, and his shoulders shuddered. He was so thin — he hadn’t eaten since Mischa went missing three weeks before. “I’m sorry,” I said again. “We have to go.”
He nodded. He knew that we were already risking everything by staying in the rock flats as long as we had — the grasslands waited, and the tablets were clear that we needed to reach them before the dead moon was in the sky if we were going to make it to the Promised Land at the appointed time. Still, he gripped me with the fervor of an argument.
“One more night,” he whispered. “She’ll come back. She has to.”
“Pinar,” I murmured. “We’ve sent out search parties as far as they can go. She’s gone.” I had practiced this part with Marc that morning, lying in our bed with his ear to my belly. “She’s gone, and we have to leave.”
“Leave me here, then,” he said weakly. I leaned forward and pressed my lips to his forehead. My eyes were dry, and I clenched them shut.
“No,” I said against his skin. When I walked out of his small tent, a hundred eyes were pretending not to watch me. I walked to the tent of the pathfinder to order the breaking of camp. Pinar’s muffled sobs cut through the silent camp, and a hundred eyes looked away.
“Fisher.” Jonah, my best scout, appeared through the fog just seconds after his footfalls announced him. “Prophetess, you have to come. You have to see— we found something.”
“What is it?” I asked, and the boy looked up at me with shining eyes.
“Dinosaurs,” he breathed.
We’d been driving the animals hard all day, and they were overdue for a rest anyway. I called a halt. The wagon train formed a rough circle, and Naomi took the sheep and goats out into the fog to find good grazing. I caught her arm as she passed.
“Don’t go too far, all right?”
She nodded and gave my hand a squeeze. “You either,” she said.
Jonah led me to the place where he’d found the dinosaurs. We rode mules, rude and short but nimble on the tricky parts of the rock flats where they transitioned into clay. The fog was thick and omnipresent, and I wondered how Jonah could possibly find his way — but then, that’s why he was a scout.
“Look,” he said.
I looked into the fog and saw nothing. “What?” I squinted.
“There.” He tugged his mule’s reins until it was right next to mine, and he pointed so that I could peer along his arm. There, perhaps four wagon-lengths in front of us, a shadow loomed out of the white.
“Oh,” I said, and then I was off my mule and walking through sticky clay toward the shadow. “Oh,” I said again.
He’d been telling the truth. Dinosaurs. Not live ones, of course — bones, huge skeletons half-buried, jutting out of the ground like a forest of branchless trees. I ran my hand along a massive, curved rib. As we walked into the field of bones, the fog thinned, and I could see entire skeletons — huge curving spines, and ribs that splayed out like spread fingers, their tips resting on the earth. Fins, their outlines still clear in the heavy soil, their bones like knuckles on the ground. Massive toothless skulls with long, strange mandibles. “The Prophet told me about dinosaurs he saw before I was born, but I never thought I’d see one,” I whispered. “Gods be praised.”
As soon as the blessing passed my lips, the Gods Whispers began, so loud I couldn’t bear them. They were too much, too many, too fast and too sharp. I clapped my hands over my ears, but they only got louder. Animal panic made my heart stutter, and before I knew what I was doing I was running. I ran into the grove of bones, my feet slipping in the clay. I ran directly into the cathedral ribcage of one of the dinosaurs, finbones scattering behind me — and the Gods Whispers fell away.
The silence was overwhelming. I could hear my heartbeat thudding in my ears, the rasp of my breathing, Jonah’s distant shouting. Overhead, arching ribs almost met. I looked down to see that I was standing on a half-buried vertebra: the creature had died on her back. I wiped at a tickle on my neck and my hand came away red: a trickle of blood was running from one of my ears.
“Gods,” I wiped my hand on my cloak. The fog swirled in currents around me, and I laid a hand on the dinosaur’s bone.
I snatched my hand back immediately, swearing, shaking my fingers — the bone had… burned.
“Fisher?” I ignored Jonah’s distant shouts. I looked closer at the bone and saw that the place my blood had touched was steaming. Gods Whispers began again, soft this time, urgent.
As I watched, the Gods’ own writing began to appear across the insides of the bones, spreading from the place that my blood had touched. I swallowed bile as the words appeared on each rib, glowing faintly red before darkening to black.
“Fisher, where are you?”
“I’ll be right there,” I called. I didn’t move.
Betrayal. Salt. Deep. Cold. Good. Cold. Cold. Warmer. Warmer. Too warm, hot. Hot like fire. Far. Fear. Lost. Hot. Hungry. Hungry. Hungry. Hungry. Hungry.
That was it. I read the bones ten times over, and that was the message.
“What is this?” I murmured. “Is this even for me?”
“Fisher! Fisher, where are you! Fisher!” A note of urgency had entered Jonah’s voice.
“Gods damn it,” I muttered. I swore to myself that I would find my way back to the bones to read them again, to read them right this time.
“Coming,” I shouted. I followed the sound of Jonah’s voice until I found him. He was beside another dinosaur skeleton, this one half-buried on its side. Its ribs arced up out of the soil like a monstrous hand, and in the shelter of its fingers, Jonah hovered over a little lump on the ground.
“Fisher,” Jonah said, “Fisher, it’s her. I found her.”
“It’s Mischa.” He straightened, and the little lump in his arms resolved itself into a shape I almost recognized. Skeletal, unmoving, but unmistakable: Pinar’s little girl.
The Gods Whispers rustled at me and I laid a hand on the girl’s head. “She’s alive?” I asked Jonah.
“I think so, but… not by much,” he said.
“Gods preserve her,” I prayed. I didn’t stop praying until we had returned to the camp.
“Find Pinar,” I said to the first ten people I saw. “Find him and tell him to come to my tent immediately.”
By the time we arrived at my tent, a small crowd was trailing us. I held the tentflap open for Jonah, then turned to address the twenty people that stood in a semicircle around us.
“We need broth and…” I massaged my forehead. I’m not a damn healer. “Clove oil,” I finally said. “And an extra brazier. Now, go, go!”
They scattered — all save for one figure. A boy. I didn’t recognize him immediately, but after a moment the strange red highlights in his brown hair connected with a name.
“Samuel,” I said. The foundling boy. I glanced over my shoulder at the entrance to my tent, then crouched in front of the child. “She’ll be all right. You don’t have to worry.”
He wiped at his nose with one sleeve. “She’s my best friend. I wanna see her.”
I cursed myself for telling him that she would be all right: the girl had been wandering in the wilderness for weeks. She would almost certainly not be all right.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said. The boy stared at me with those strange, mottled-green eyes, and then broke away at a run. He shoved me as he passed, sending me sprawling. I pushed myself to my feet, but he was already inside the tent.
“Samuel, no— damn it,” I hissed, rubbing my raw palms on my thighs. Inside the tent, I heard Jonah echoing my exact words. Then, he cried out, louder and shrill.
“Samuel, what the— what are you doing, no, you can’t—”
I ran into the tent, then pulled up short.
“Samuel,” I said, speaking as softly as I could, “what are you doing?”
“I don’t care if I get in trouble again,” he answered. “She’s my friend. And… it’s my fault she’s sick.”
“What do you mean?”
“We were playing look-and-find and I told her that I bet she couldn’t hide longest,” he whispered, his face a mask of abject shame. “She hid so good that nobody could find her when it was time to break camp.”
She hid, and then she couldn’t find us, and she must have stumbled through the wilderness for weeks. It was a miracle she was still alive. I remembered the way that the dinosaur skeletons affected me — I wondered what impact they’d have on a child.
“It’s my fault she’s sick and I’m gonna help.” Samuel’s face was set into a stubborn knot of concentration. His hands hovered over Mischa, one over her face and one over her belly. Strands of black were flowing away from her, wrapping themselves around his wrists and arms and fingers like brambles. After a few seconds, he made a choked sound; then he ran outside, covered in black up to his elbows. As he ran, the black illness rose off his arms like mist. By the time he got to wherever he was running to, I knew, it would be as though it had never touched him.
In the bed, Mischa stirred.
“There’s no way,” Jonah said, looking up at me.
“Praise the Gods,” I said, staring at the pink-cheeked, healthy little girl that lay in my bed. “It looks like they’ve sent us a new healer.”
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.