Ducky had just finally fallen asleep when the rear flap of canvas on the back of my wagon snapped open.
“You need to see this.”
I nearly screamed with frustration as Ducky’s head jerked. Her eyes fluttered open, and she drew breath to start wailing. Again.
“What is it, Marc?” I snapped. The tablets say not to hate anyone, and so I did not hate my husband. But I was not particularly in love with him that day, either. He’d taken to praying through the night, refusing to interrupt his devotion to the Gods even when Ducky stirred and cried. Even when I hadn’t slept for days.
“You need to come, Prophetess,” he said, inclining his head in the formal bow that most of my followers had taken to performing. I wanted to throw something at him.
“Fine,” I said through gritted teeth. I climbed from the moving wagon, stumbling as I landed. It was loud outside of the wagon — the noise of the wheels crunching through the gravelly dirt of the scrubland combined with the shouts of the children who ran behind us, waving sticks and occasionally hitting each other. The wagons were moving at a fervent pace. Marc tried to get me to follow him, but I ignored him, planting my feet until Naomi caught up to us.
“Can you take Ducky?” I asked, handing my daughter to her before she could answer. “Apparently I’m needed.”
“Oh, I’ll say,” she replied, her ruddy face grim. “I already had Sam pull a mule for you. Hino is waiting for you up front.”
“Hino? Jasper’s boy?”
“He took over as lead scout when Jonah… um.” She trailed off, and I didn’t answer. I started off toward the front of the wagon train, half-jogging to beat the pace we were setting. I lifted my hand in thanks without looking back.
What she hadn’t said — what she hadn’t been willing to remind me — was that Jonah had left along with nineteen other Children of the Gods. Back between Marc’s awakening and Ducky’s birth, I’d lost twenty followers, along with all the stored water and the seed that we’d been able to save throughout all of the floods and storms and fires and deserts we’d survived.
Everyone who remained had been wonderful during the long month of my confinement, labor, and recovery. But now we were behind schedule, and we needed to catch up to the brothers and sisters who had abandoned us. They’d sworn to follow the trail mapped out by the Gods. They’d sworn to meet us in the Promised Land.
So after Ducky’s birth, we jettisoned every scrap of weight that we could spare, and we raced to meet them.
“This way, Prophetess,” the boy who met me at the front of the wagon train said. He waved an arm at me as I mounted the mule that was waiting.
“Hino, right?” I asked as we began to ride ahead of the group. “When did you get so tall?”
“I’m not sure, Prophetess,” he said. I shifted uncomfortably on the mule’s back.
“Where are we going?”
He didn’t answer, and I watched his face as he stopped himself from — what? Crying? Vomiting? We rode in silence for the time it took sweat to begin etching a course through the grit on my back. Hino stopped next to a broad swath of scrub, and helped me off my mule.
“Hino, what’s here?” The sun seemed to be perched directly on top of us. The bleached-blue expanse of the sky was broken only by a few huge black birds, circling in the distance. I wiped at my face with one corner of the scarf I wore whenever we crossed through sands or scrubland.
“Come with me, please,” he replied, and his eyes begged me not to make him explain. I reminded myself that Marc and Naomi had both thought I should come with this young man, and I swallowed back my doubts.
We picked our way through the scrub, leading our mules, dodging spiny leaves that attempted to gouge our legs. Sweat stung my eyes, and I wished that I’d worn a less threadbare scarf over my dark hair to keep the sun from cooking my scalp. My eyes were on the ground, and I nearly bumped into Hino when he stopped short in front of me.
“There,” he said, pointing. It took a moment for my eyes to follow his finger. At first I thought he was pointing to the shadow of the great bird that circled overhead.
Then, the shadow passed, and I saw them. They were lined up like pearls on a necklace: twenty heads, arranged from largest to smallest. They looked strange, gape-mouthed and staring, and it took me a moment to realize that their eyes, lips, and tongues had been removed.
“What… what happened to them?” I asked, hearing how stupid I sounded even as the words left my mouth.
“Scavengers, most like,” Hino answered. “They always go for the softest parts first.”
“What came before the scavengers?” I wondered aloud.
I moved closer and crouched in front of the heads, staring into the faces. Even mutilated as they were, I recognized them. On one end, the massive head of Rand, the child-minder. On the opposite end, the tiny head his daughter. I paced along the line, looking into each of their faces.
Jonah, the old scout, was somewhere in the middle.
“Who did this to you?” I whispered. The Gods replied with only the faintest of murmurs. I closed my eyes, trying to listen harder.
The Gods whispered “justice” in my ear.
“No,” I muttered. “No, this is not justice. This is not right.”
The Gods had no answer for that.
“Where are their bodies?” I asked Hino. He shrugged, studying a tick on his mule’s back. “Who killed them? Why?” He shrugged again, although I hadn’t expected an answer to those questions.
I scrubbed my face with both hands, trying to discern what message I was meant to take from this display.
“I, um, I found the wagons, Prophetess.” He cleared his throat. “They’re just over that ridge.”
Hope swelled in me like a rising tide.
“They’re burned out,” he said. “Seeds and all. Unsalvageable.” He wouldn’t look at me.
I breathed heavily through my nose. “Shit,” I spat. “Shit.”
“Prophetess?” Hino said softly. I looked back and saw that he was still staring at his mule’s back. He wiped at his face with the back of one arm.
“What is it, Hino?”
“Would… would you pray with me?” He looked up at me, and his face was as broken as a dropped egg.
The Gods’ own stillness settled over me like a mantle. I walked over to him, rested my hand on his shoulder. “Of course, my son,” I said, my voice heavy with comfort and authority. The buzzard that had been circling overhead landed heavily behind me, having finally decided that I wasn’t a threat. As it began tearing the flesh off one of the faces that rested in the line on the ground, I prayed to the Gods for mercy, comfort, and peace. Under my hand, Hino’s shoulders shuddered.
In the distance, I heard the oncoming rumble of our wagon train, catching up to us at last.