The Gods Whispers woke me in the night. My eyes opened and at first I grabbed for Marc, but I stopped myself before my hand could land on my sleeping husband’s bare chest. My palm hovered over his heart, just above the thick carpet of blonde hair that stretched between his nipples and his navel.
When they come, I remembered my father the Prophet saying, you’ll know to listen.
So I rose from our sleeping mat and stood with my palms open. And I listened.
The Gods Whispers were unintelligible, shushing and sloshing and occasionally making me feel unsteady on my feet. I closed my eyes and practiced breathing the way the Prophet had taught me to, as though the air was thick and heavy, and I caught a single word out of the strange rush of sound.
So I went.
I stood outside beneath the light of a sharp crescent moon. The desert sand retained a little of the day’s warmth, but the night air still bit at my elbows and throat, and I pulled my cloak tighter in an attempt to transform the itch of the fabric into warmth.
Behind me, my new tent: large, with two flaps in the front and enough room to stand comfortably. It was patched and wearing thin at the folds. It was fragrant, the odor of decades of human occupation masked by the recent smells of clove and beeswax and juniper. It was the tent in which my father had died.
In front of me, my old tent: low and small and identical to the sixty other tents in the camp. The sides fluttered, and the lantern in front of the stakes was dark. Even before I peeked inside, I knew that its new occupant was not inside. Hanna, the huntress, was gone.
I let the tentflap fall, and the Gods Whispers began afresh. The light of the crescent moon fell upon a shadow near my feet.
I looked down. I was wrong: it was not a shadow.
It was blood. Rich and fragrant. The breeze that bothered Hanna’s tentflap lifted the smell of it to me, and I made the sign of the moon over my head.
“Thank you, Holiest, for your gift of blood.” I whispered the same blessing I’d said every month since my girlhood, a reflex at the sight and the smell of the blood. It took on a new meaning as I realized that the Gods must have gifted Hanna with an especially heavy month, to leave such clear footprints in sand. I knelt and touched my fingers to the sand next to the stain, tracing the outline of a footprint. “Where are you going, Hanna?”
Perhaps she just needed to relieve herself. Perhaps that’s why she wandered into the desert in the middle of the night without alerting anyone to her departure. Perhaps she ate something spoiled, and she had to leave urgently, and that’s why she didn’t light the lantern that sits outside of every tent to indicate that the occupant is coming right back. Perhaps she was tracking some night-dwelling creature and she heard it, and she ran out of her tent without thinking to grab the bow that leaned against the side of the canvas.
I came up with many answers as I followed Hanna’s red-brown footprints into the desert. The Gods Whispers hushed around me, and I knew that none of my answers were correct.
“I can’t believe she’s making us wait another night to break camp.” The voice travelled to me from the other side of a dune, and I stopped moving. The Gods Whispers fell silent. I crouched and held my breath as the sand nudged against my feet.
“Can Fisher even read the tablets?”
“Her father said—”
“Her father is dead.” Hanna. That was Hanna’s voice, flat and calm and authoritative. She’d always been good at speaking fact into uncertainty. There were four other voices — no, five. I tried to identify them as they argued about whether I could be trusted with leadership. The Prophet would have been able to identify them. He would have known them by a single word, by a single breath.
“I think — hm. I think that we should wait and see.” There, I knew that voice — that was Liam, the seed-tender. That was his funny little cough. I’d heard it dozens of times, playing in the seed-wagon as a girl. I sat back on my heels, pressing my fingers into the sand, digging for the warm layer that would be a foot beneath the surface. “Maybe she’ll be useful. And if she’s not—”
The Gods Whispers started up again. The same as the ones that had woken me up. Go.
I fled back to my tent. Stupid, I thought as I ran across the sand, stupid — if they had come over the dune, there would have been nowhere for me to hide. They would have known that I’d heard them. And if she’s not…?
I crawled into the bed beside Marc, my feet tracking sand onto our sleeping mat, my cloak a dusty puddle of wool at the entrance to our tent. He shifted to accommodate me, his arm nudging under my head, his stubble rasping at the back of my neck.
“Everything all right?” His baritone whisper was so much clearer than that of the Gods.
“Do you think I can do this?” I whispered back. His lips brushed the nape of my neck.
“Your father thought you could do it,” he said. “Where did you go?”
I let a few breaths pass before answering. “Nowhere,” I finally replied. “We should break camp tomorrow,” I added.
“Mm.” His breath slowed, and then he was asleep behind me, his chest pressed close to my back, our legs tangled together.
Silently, so as not to wake him, I started to thank the Gods for showing me the bloody footprints in the sand. I thanked them for the fact that Hanna had chosen to rally against me at the same time that she was being visited. I was going to thank them even for her treachery — I couldn’t see how it was a gift, but the Gods give only gifts, and they must be thanked for each and every one.
But something caught in my mind as I was giving thanks.
Hanna’s bloody footprints in the sand. The fragrance of Hanna’s blood, sacred and sharp and musky on the night air.
It was a fragrance I hadn’t smelled in too long.
I thought back to the last time I’d left bloody footprints of my own. It had been on the rock-flats, after we’d passed the giant arches of stone but before the Prophet had taken ill. I counted moons in my mind: dead, crescent, quarter, gibbous, Godsmoon, waning, quarter, crescent, and then the dead moon when the healer had failed and the Prophet had died — and then again, all the way until tonight’s crescent.
I counted again. It could not be. It could not be.
I counted a final time, and then the Gods Whispers began to rustle, and I could not deny it any longer.
I made the sign of the moon, and I thanked the Gods even as I wept for the blood that I knew would not come for seven more months. I lay awake, weeping and praying, as careful footfalls passed outside my tent. I rested a palm against my belly, and I did not wake Marc. Not yet.
“The Gods give only gifts,” I reminded myself. I repeated it a hundred times over before the dawn broke over the tents of my people.
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.