“You should eat more.”
Marc made as if to hand me the remainder of his bread. It was all he’d have to eat that day — the tablets had predicted a shortage of food during the end of the first quarter-moon, so we were on rations. I pushed it back to him.
“I’m not hungry,” I lied. Outside, the sound of mallets driving stakes through the corners of tents echoed throughout the camp. Under the constant high drone of emptiness in my stomach, a tiny heartbeat fluttered.
“Please, Fisher,” he said. He hadn’t called me Ducky since the night of my father’s death. No one had. “I don’t need it. You do. You… both do.” He aimed a significant glance at my abdomen and I had a sudden urge to hit him.
“We all do,” came a voice from behind me. I turned and saw Rand, the child-minder. Marc’s older brother. He had a face like a dog’s, soft-eyed and worried, but his mouth was eternally pinched into an I-know-better line.
The tablets say not to hate anyone, and so I did not hate Rand.
“Why are we on rations, Prophetess?” Rand asked. “There’s more than enough food to go around. Why are my children hungry?”
“I told you yesterday, Rand,” I said in a tone that I hoped was a model of patience and understanding. “The tablets say that there will not be enough food for everyone as we leave the desert to enter the rock barrens. The tablets recommend—”
“Can you even read the tablets?”
Marc took a step forward, radiating anger like a live coal. “Of course she can read the tablets, look at her eyes, any damned fool can—”
“What?” Rand challenged. “Can what? Can take all the food for herself while she leaves her people to starve? Just because your brat is in her belly—”
“Watch yourself, brother,” Marc growled, and they were too close together and Rand’s lip was lifting into a snarl—
But then Hanna came running, shouting my name. She skidded to a halt just a few feet from where the two men stood. “Sorry,” she said breathlessly, “there’s an emergen— there’s a situation.”
I nodded for her to continue, leaving Rand and Marc to either fight or cease their snarling.
“I was in the sands,” Hanna said, her breathing already slowing. I took in her scarves and her long sleeves and her tight-wrapped legs, and I knew that she had almost certainly been hunting. She almost certainly hadn’t snuck into the desert again to plot against me. Almost certainly. “I was getting a sense of the land — looking for spoor, tracks,” she continued, “and I saw — I saw people. I found people.”
I stared at her. “What?”
“I found people,” she repeated.
I was dumbstruck. The route the tablets took us on kept us far from the high-walled cities of the North, East, and South, and we weren’t crossing into any of the Western mining territories or military training facilities of the Citadel. “That can’t be,” I said stupidly. “There’s… there’s nobody here.”
She shook her head. “I thought I was seeing things, but… come see for yourself,” she said.
“You brought them back with you?!” My voice was shrill in my own ears, and I put up a hand before she could respond. “Sorry, I— this is a lot to take in. Where are they?”
She looked uncomfortable. “They’re in your tent,” she said in a low tone. “Sorry, Fisher. I figured you’d want to decide what to do with them before we let anyone else see them.”
Without another word, we started walking to my tent. Her stride was long, longer than mine, but she shortened it so as not to make me jog after her, and I was grateful. I glanced at her sidelong and wondered if I’d been wrong to question her loyalty.
It took a few seconds for my vision to adjust to the darkness of my tent. I must have looked imposing to them — a strange, breathless woman bursting through the canvas and then standing silently for the space of five heartbeats. Finally, my eyes acclimated, and the vague shadows before me resolved into the shape of a person. A stout woman in a full skirt, her hair a redder brown than that of any of the travelers in my camp. Her strangely-shadowed face was so sunburnt that I flinched to look at it; a blister stood out on her nose.
“I thought you said there were two?” I muttered. Hanna nodded, gestured, and a piece of the woman’s skirt broke away. I made an involuntary noise and felt my fingers brush my lips before I knew I was covering my mouth.
The woman was not stout, and her skirt was not full. There was a boy. Five, I thought, or a malnourished seven. He had her same strange, red-brown hair. He’d been hiding his face, and his dust-shrouded clothing had blended perfectly with her robes. The two of them stood side-by-side, and I realized that the strange shadows on the woman’s face were the outlines of her skull.
They were starving.
“Broth,” I murmured to Hanna. “Bring broth, now.”
“But the rationing—”
“Now,” I snapped, and she gave me a cold, close-lipped nod before leaving the tent.
I took a deep breath, then heard a sniffle behind me. I turned around to see the skeletal boy wiping his nose on his sleeve. “There’s no need to cry anymore,” I said, attempting a beatific smile. “You’re home now, friends.”
The boy lifted his eyes to mine. The moment he saw my God-stained eyes, he burst into terrified, uncomprehending tears. The woman’s knees buckled, and the boy let out a wail as she collapsed.
“They can’t stay,” Marc murmured into my ear as people — my people — gathered in the center of the encampment. “There’s not enough food.”
“They won’t eat much,” I said back. “It’ll take them at least a couple of weeks to re-acclimate to a normal diet, and by then we’ll be in the grasslands again.”
“They’ll slow us down, and we’re already behind,” he hissed at me. “We can’t afford to wait for them to be well, and we can’t afford the resources.” Liam, standing a few feet away, turned to see what we were whispering about. He was still holding the mallet he’d been using to stake down tents. I gave him a tight smile.
“This isn’t a discussion, Marc,” I said. “I’m not sending them back into the sands to die.”
“I’m just saying what everyone else is going to say,” he replied mulishly. “We don’t even know who these people are. They could be criminals.”
“The tablets are clear on this,” I said, and turned to him with my eyes wide, so he could see the expansive blackness of the Gods Sight. “Sanctuary shall be offered to any traveler in their hour of need, be they crawling creature or vast leviathan. Forget not the Sanctuary, lest you be turned away onto the sands.”
He frowned at me, not looking directly into my eyes. I laid a palm over my abdomen to remind myself that I loved him. That we loved each other enough to make a child. That we loved each other enough to disagree. I offered my cheek, and he kissed it once, lightly, before taking his seat in the crowd.
I turned to face my people, and raised my hands high. “Friends,” I began, “I have gathered you here today to welcome two newcomers into our midst.” A murmur began in the crowd, and I cleared my throat. I kept my hands up and spoke over them. “These two—”
“What are they gonna eat?” I followed the direction of turning heads until my eyes landed on Liam. His arms were folded over his barrel chest.
“That is for the healer to decide.” I did not mention that Margot had been weak and unsteady since her failure to heal the Prophet. “I anticipate that it will be little, as they have been starving since at least the last gibbous moon,” I said, before continuing in the formal voice with which a Prophetess should address her people. “These two newcomers come from a city far to the North.” There was murmuring as people began to speculate about the notoriously brutal cities. I cut it off with a raised hand. “They have been wandering for many days and many nights. They are injured, starving, and ill. We have offered them Sanctuary, and with eyes open to our mission, they have accepted. We are gathered tonight to name and welcome them. They are in Margot’s tent tonight, but have consented to be named in absentia.” Another murmur from the crowd. I ignored it.
I looked up at the rising moon, just two handspans above the horizon, and opened my throat to the Gods. When the time comes, my father had said, you’ll know how.
“Greetings, foundlings,” I said, my arms held out to the side as though I would embrace the low-slung moon. My voice echoed throughout the encampment, over the sands. I knew that the woman and the child could hear me. For all I knew, the city they’d fled could hear me, too. “I, Fisher, hereby name you in the sight of the Gods and their people, the names you have chosen in the sight of the Prophetess, the Healer, and all the Gods: Maia and Samuel. By these names you are welcomed. By these names you shall be known to your people; by this name they shall harbor you. Maia and Samuel, welcome home.”
All around me, my people cheered. I looked into their faces, and saw the silence that rested heavily on some of their faces. More than just Liam and Rand and Hanna.
I raised my hands skyward and repeated myself for the benefit of the silent, looking at each one in turn. “Welcome home.”
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.