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Authors: Alexis Henderson

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BOOK: The Year of the Witching
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“There is one more thing.” The Prophet moved to stand before his son. He drew something from the back pocket of his trousers. Squinting, Immanuelle could see that it was a dagger.

Ezra’s
dagger.

The chain was broken, the latch badly bent, as if it’d been ripped from around Ezra’s neck—and Immanuelle realized, with a start, that it had. It was the same blade that Judith had snatched in the midst of her fight with Ezra, the night of Leah’s cutting.

The Prophet let it dangle now between him and his son, the blade catching the sunlight as it swung back and forth. “I found this in Judith’s quarters. Tell me, how did it come into her possession?”

By some miracle, Ezra maintained his composure. “I lost my dagger the night of Leah’s cutting.”

“You
lost
it?”

“I was distracted.”

“By my wife?”

“No,” said Ezra, and Immanuelle marveled at the way he could make a lie sound just like the truth. “Not Judith. By something . . . someone else. When I returned to the place I thought I dropped my dagger, it was gone. Judith must have found it. I’m sure she intended to return it to me.”

“But it was under her pillows,” said the Prophet in a hoarse whisper. “Why would my wife keep my son’s holy dagger beneath her pillows while she slept at night?”

Immanuelle wanted more than anything now to run—to flee and leave the Haven far behind her—but she found herself unable to move; her feet stayed pinned to the floor.

The Prophet took Ezra by the wrist and pressed the dagger deep into the center of his palm, folding Ezra’s fingers over the blade so he was forced to grip it barehanded. The older man paused, his hand resting lightly over his son’s, and he peered into his eyes. Then he squeezed, so suddenly and so hard that his knuckles popped.

Immanuelle watched in breathless horror as blood streamed
through the cracks between Ezra’s fingers. He worked his jaw, but he didn’t flinch, didn’t break his father’s gaze, even as the blood trickled down his wrist and the blade bit deeper.

“What you do in the shadows comes out in the light.” The Prophet leaned closer to his son. “I thought I raised you to understand that. Perhaps I was mistaken.”

“You weren’t.” Ezra’s expression remained unchanged, but there was something cold and defiant in his eyes, as though his father was the one who had amends to make, not he.

The Prophet released him abruptly. He looked startled, almost sick, at the sight of what he’d done—at the dagger and his own hands, both smeared with his son’s blood. “The Father’s mercy is one matter,” he said as he tried to recover his composure. “But mine is another. You’d do well to remember that.”

The Prophet turned to depart then, but Ezra didn’t let go of the dagger. In fact, Immanuelle could see he gripped it even tighter, and she gasped as a fresh stream of blood trickled down his wrist. He watched silently as his father walked to the library doors.

Blood dappled the cobbles at Ezra’s feet, but still he kept his hand clenched around the dagger’s blade. It was only after his father departed the chamber that he answered, his voice soft: “I will remember, Father.”

C
HAPTER
T
HIRTEEN

I tried to love him, and I tried to put you from my mind. But it isn’t an easy thing to turn your back on a home, and that’s what I found in you.

—F
ROM
THE
L
ETTERS
OF
M
IRIAM
M
OO
RE

THE CELLARS BENEATH
the Prophet’s Haven reminded Immanuelle strangely of the corridors of the Darkwood. The shadows were thick and wet, and they seemed to cling to her clothes as she made her way through the halls. The air smelled of iron and decay, and by the light of the flickering torches she could see that the stone walls were weeping blood.

She wandered, disoriented and cold, one hand slipping along the gore-slick wall to guide her. Alone, there was nothing to keep her from replaying the scene in the library in her head: the Prophet’s paranoia; his sudden, vicious malice; blood spattering the cobbles; and Ezra’s blank stare. With every step, the corridors closed in around her, and the shadows seemed to fill her lungs so that she had to gasp and struggle for every breath.

By the time she finally reached the first floor, her heart was beating so fast it ached. She stumbled through the doorway, out of the wet shadows and into a narrow hall with arched ceilings.

A door opened and closed, and Immanuelle turned to see
Judith standing a few paces away. She wore a dress of pale blue, and in her hand was a fraying scrap of embroidery that was still far better than anything Immanuelle had ever sewn.

“What are you doing here?” Judith demanded, and her gaze traced over her, taking in every flaw—the patched holes at the tops of her boots, her bloodstained skirts, the unkempt riot of her curls. “Shouldn’t you be in the fields with your flock . . . or in the Outskirts?”

Immanuelle flinched. She raised a hand to fix her hair, but then thought better of it and stopped. No amount of preening would satisfy Judith’s spite. She would always find some fault to fixate on, or some cruel barb to make Immanuelle feel like less than she was. “Good morrow to you, Judith.”

The girl offered no greeting in return. Her gaze drifted from Immanuelle to the door behind her. “Where did you just come from?”

Immanuelle took a step past her. “I lost my way.”

Judith caught her by the arm, her grasp tight enough to leave bruises behind, but when she spoke her voice was still thin and sweet. “You smell of blood. Were you wandering the catacombs?”

“No. I’m here on business,” said Immanuelle, keeping her voice steady.

“Whose?”

“That’s my concern.”

Judith angled her head to the side. A smile played over her lips, but there was no kindness in it. Her hand slipped away. “I know that you saw us that night.”

That should have been the end of it, but Immanuelle stalled a beat, lingering in the center of the hall.

“You think you’re so clever, don’t you? Holding little threats above my head.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t insult my intelligence. I know you saw us that night. You were snooping around then just like you are now, sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong.”

“I’m not here to snoop.”

Judith scoffed, then laughed outright, and somehow she looked more cruel smiling than she did scowling. “You wear a lie about as well as a toddler does a corset,” said Judith, and she plucked at one of her own bodice strings. “Deception doesn’t become you, and that’s all right if you’re pocketing taffy at the market or fibbing to your father about some boy you kissed behind the schoolhouse. But I don’t think those are the kinds of secrets you’re keeping. I think the sins you’re hiding could send you to the pyre if you’re not careful.”

Judith must not know, Immanuelle realized, of the danger she was in, that the Prophet was aware of her dalliance with Ezra. There was no way Judith would be wasting time in the corridor with her if she knew how much trouble she was in. The spoiled girl was so used to always having her way, she couldn’t imagine a day she might not. The idea that she’d be caught was so minor, so inconceivable, she hadn’t even paused to consider it. “You’re a fool if you think I’m the one in danger.”

For the first time in recent memory—or perhaps in all the sixteen years Immanuelle had known her—Judith looked properly taken aback. A range of emotions passed over her face, like a series of shadows in quick succession, ranging from rage to fear to doubt. She parted her lips to respond to Immanuelle’s warning, or perhaps demand an explanation, when a door opened down the hall. The two girls turned immediately and watched as a tall, pale man stepped past the threshold. He was a servant, if his dirtied boots and smock were any indication. Hanging from the loop of his belt was a holy dagger, as well as a small iron hammer just longer than Immanuelle’s hand. The only mark of his station was
the symbol of the Prophet’s Guard, which was embroidered into the right-hand corner of his smock.

The man smiled at them, but the gesture lacked any pretense of warmth. “Pardon me, mistress. Your husband wants a word.”

Judith’s eyes went from the man to Immanuelle, then back to the man again.

“This way.” He sounded impatient now.

Judith’s eyes filled suddenly with tears, and she began to tremble. For one absurd moment, Immanuelle thought to reach for her, as if there was something she could do to stay whatever fate awaited her in the form of that strange, sneering man at the hall’s end.

But then Judith started forward, each step slow and heavy, her velvet skirts trailing behind her as she went. Immanuelle saw the terror in her eyes as she brushed past the threshold to the man who stood waiting for her, rounded a corner, and disappeared.

C
HAPTER
F
OURTEEN

We have broken ourselves to be together. The fragments of me fit with the fragments of you, and our remnants have become greater than the sum of who we used to be.

—F
ROM
THE
L
ETTERS
OF
D
ANIEL
W
ARD

IMMANUELLE FOUND EZRA
just outside the front gate in the eastern pastures, standing beside the same cottonwood he’d been reading under when she first arrived. In his good hand, the reins of a tall black steed. In his bad one, a stained rag he gripped to staunch the bleeding. “What took you so long?” he demanded.

Immanuelle forced herself not to stare at his hand. “Your lovely mistress caught me in the halls. She wanted to chat.”

“Judith?”

“Yes, Judith,” Immanuelle snapped, suddenly furious. “What, do you have trouble remembering them all?”

Ezra frowned. He forced his good hand toward her and nodded to the cart. “Climb up. I’m taking you home.”

Immanuelle didn’t move. “What’s between you two?”

“What?”

“You and Judith. What’s between you?”

“There’s nothing between us.”

Immanuelle fought the urge to fold her arms over her chest. “I saw her kiss you, and it didn’t seem like it was your first time.”

Ezra’s hand tightened around the rag, and he worked his jaw. “No, it wasn’t. But it was the last.”

Immanuelle knew then that she ought to bite her tongue, leave Ezra to his sins. But then she thought of that strange, sneering man in the hall and the look of terror that had passed over Judith’s face when she walked to meet him. Her rage bubbled over, and the words tumbled out before she had the chance to bite them back. “Why did you start in the first place? Girls have burned on the pyre for less than the sins you committed together. My own father burned for lesser crimes.”

Ezra at least had the decency to look ashamed. “Immanuelle—”

“You knew the danger. You must have.”

“I did. We both did.”

“So why?” she demanded, motioning to his hand. “Why risk everything?”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

Immanuelle’s thoughts went to her father. She imagined him with her mother, meeting in secret as Ezra had with Judith. She thought of all they’d risked for each other: their happiness, their faith, any chance they’d ever have at a future. “You’re right,” said Immanuelle tightly. “I’ll never understand why people choose to hurt those they claim to love.”

“I don’t love Judith, and she doesn’t love me. It’s not like that. It never was.”

“It didn’t appear that way the other night.”

“Well, everything isn’t always the way it appears,” he said, frustrated. “Look, Immanuelle, if you want a story about love and loss and heartbreak, you should’ve taken a book from the library. What Judith and I had was nothing like that.”

“Then why bother with it in the first place?”

“We’re done discussing this.” He nodded toward the cart. “Now, come on.”

“I’ll walk.”

“No, you won’t,” said Ezra, turning to harness his steed to the cart. He struggled with the buckles a bit, wincing every time he was forced to use his bad hand. “Look, I’ve answered all of your questions to the best of my knowledge. I lied to my father to get you into the library, breaking at least half the codes of Bethelan Protocol in the process. So if you would be so kind as to allow me to escort you home, I’d greatly appreciate it. Is that agreeable enough for you or would you prefer it if I grovel?”

She shouldered past him. “I’d prefer to walk.”

“Goddamn it, Immanuelle.”

She turned on him then, so fast her heel dug deep into the dirt. “Such a filthy tongue for a prophet’s son.”

“It’s a filthy world,” he snapped. “Which is exactly why I’d prefer it if you’d let me escort you home.”

A low wind seethed through the high grass.

Immanuelle peered down again at Ezra’s hand. The rag he was clutching was all but soaked through, and though he kept his expression stoic, she could tell he was in pain. He had to be, with a wound like that. And then there was the matter of deeper pains—the invisible ones that couldn’t be nursed with bandages or salves.

“Is this about your father?” she asked quietly.

Ezra didn’t look at her, but his grip on the rag tightened. “Climb up. The sun’s setting fast.”

“You didn’t answer my question about you and Judith.”

“And I don’t intend to.” He patted the cart bench. “Up. Now.”

“Give me an answer and I’ll consider it.”

Ezra set his jaw again, and for a moment Immanuelle was quite certain they’d both stay there, rooted in place, until the night melted into dawn and their legs went weak beneath them. But to her surprise, Ezra broke first.

“People do foolish, reckless things when they’re desperate to
find ways to escape themselves.” He sighed and hung his head. “As ugly as it is, sometimes the truth is nothing more than that.”

Immanuelle studied him for a moment. Then she climbed onto the cart.

For a while, the two of them rode in silence, the sunset dying into darkness, shadows stretching between the trees as they crossed through the Holy Grounds. As they neared the Glades, Immanuelle took a roll of bandages from the pocket of her knapsack. With some coaxing, Ezra let her take his hand and peel the rag away from his wound. It was an ugly gash, deep enough to need stitching, but Immanuelle did the best she could to wrap the bandages tight and staunch the bleeding. As she tended him, she thought of the irony of it all. Just a few weeks ago, she had nursed a similar wound. Perhaps she and Ezra had more in common than she thought. Was that the source of the budding kinship she sensed between them? Shared pain?

A cold, bitter wind swept down from the north and blasted through the treetops. The steed spooked, sidestepping so Ezra had to drag on the reins and raise his voice above the roar to talk him down.

Immanuelle shivered and gripped her seat. Ezra, eyes still fixed on the distant darkness, took one hand off the reins and reached into the back of the cart, producing a blanket. “Here.”

“Thank you,” she said, drawing the quilt around her shoulders.

“It’s nothing.”

“Even still.”

The path twisted east toward the Glades, cutting through Bethel’s heartland. But as they neared the Darkwood’s edge once again, its thrall grew stronger. Immanuelle wondered then if the Father’s power called to Ezra in the same way that the forest did her. If he was as drawn to the light as she was to shadow.

Ezra glanced at her out of his periphery. “What is it?”

She blushed, embarrassed to be caught staring. “It’s just that . . . well, I wondered if—”

He smirked, clearly amused by her stammering. “Out with it.”

“Have you always felt called to the Prophethood?”

Ezra shook his head. “I never wanted to be heir. I wanted to travel, go beyond the wall.”

“Why would you ever want to do that?”

“Because there’s more to the world than Bethel. The wilds don’t go on forever. There is life beyond them. There has to be.”

“You mean the heathen cities?”

“That’s one name for them. But before Ford built the wall, those heathen cities were Bethel’s allies.”

“But that was centuries ago.”

“I know,” said Ezra, his eyes on the horizon. “That’s why I wanted to go—to figure out what happened, to know if we’re alone out here.”

She frowned, confused. As heir, Ezra was one of the only people in Bethel who had the jurisdiction to open the Hallowed Gate and grant passage through it. It seemed to Immanuelle that if he’d really wanted to leave Bethel, he would have been gone already. “Why don’t you just go?”

Ezra slipped his dagger from his pocket by way of answer. He had yet to clean it, Immanuelle noticed, and the blade was still crusted with his blood. “I’m told my place is here.”

They fell quiet once more. The wheels of the wagon rattled through potholes and bloody puddles as they entered the Glades. While the dark was far too thick to see through, Immanuelle could hear the gentle
hush hush
of the wind in the branches of the western forest.

“We should go up to the cathedral’s bell tower tomorrow,” said Ezra, breaking the silence between them. “I’ll be in session with the apostles in the afternoon, but I’m free in the morning.”

His proposal startled her, both in its boldness and in the fact that he suggested it at all. When he’d mentioned taking her to the bell tower, she had never—even for a moment—expected him to follow through on that promise. But even though a part of her was excited by the prospect, she shook her head. “I can’t.”

“You have other plans?” Ezra asked, and Immanuelle had the odd suspicion that there was something else, something more behind the question, though she couldn’t say exactly what.

“I’m going to the Darkwood.” The moment the truth was free of her, she wondered why she had offered it. She supposed a small, weak part of herself wanted to impress him . . . and she hated herself for it.

But to her surprise, Ezra seemed relatively unfazed by her confession. “I thought you were afraid of the woods.”

“I am. Anyone with the good sense they were born with would be,” said Immanuelle. And while this was true, she’d come to realize that fear wasn’t a reasonable excuse not to do what needed to be done. It was a strange notion, as Immanuelle had never been particularly brave. But in the days that followed the onset of the blood plague, she’d begun growing into her own kind of courage. And she liked the feel of it. “Some things have to be done whether they scare me or not.”

Ezra shifted closer, tipping his head toward hers, and she could tell he was struggling to read her, parse out the truth. “What does a girl like you need to do in the witches’ wood?”

She didn’t see the point in lying to him. “I want to stop the bleeding,” she said simply. “And I think I know how to do it.”

Immanuelle waited for his laughter, for his ridicule, but it didn’t come. “I’ll meet you by the well at daybreak.”

It was her turn to be shocked. “You can’t come with me.”

“I can and will,” said Ezra, as if the matter had been discussed
and decided already. “There’s no way I’m letting you go into the Darkwood alone.”

“But it’s dangerous for men to walk the woods,” said Immanuelle, remembering the stories Martha had told her as a child, to warn her of the forest and its evils. She had often claimed that during the Dark Days, men who dared to enter the forest frequently returned rabid, bewitched into madness by the woodland coven.

Ezra waved her off. “That’s superstition.”

Immanuelle had once thought the same, but that was before she witnessed the witches of the woods. Now she knew the dangers of the Darkwood were real, and while she was willing to risk her own life to stop the plague she’d started, she wouldn’t risk Ezra’s too. “It’s too dangerous. Believe me. Especially since you’re a holy man, the wood is hostile toward the likes of you.”

He rolled his eyes. “That’s a lie pagans devised in the ancient times to keep Bethelan soldiers from crossing their borders.”

“That’s not true. Just because you haven’t seen the horrors of the Darkwood firsthand doesn’t mean they’re not real. The forest is dangerous, and if you want to live, you should stay well clear of it.”

Ezra opened his mouth to respond when the horse gave a loud shriek. The cart listed so far to the right that Immanuelle would have tumbled off headfirst if Ezra hadn’t caught her by the waist.

Ahead of the horse, in the center of the road, was a hound. It was a hulking, mangy creature, and it was growling, its eyes reflecting the light of the cart’s swinging lanterns. It snapped at the horse’s hooves, its mouth blood-slick and frothing.

Ezra passed the reins to Immanuelle. “Hold these and stay here.”

“But your hand—”

“I’m fine.” He twisted to the back of the cart, where, from a heap of hay, he produced a long rifle.

“You’re not going to—”

“It’s rabid,” he said as he hopped from the cart. Gun raised, he stalked toward the hound. It snarled at his approach, pressing itself low to the ground.

The horse bucked, and Immanuelle yanked the reins so hard her palms chafed.

Ezra raised the rifle to his shoulder.

The hound lunged.

The crack of the bullet breaking from the barrel split the darkness. The hound staggered, tripping over its own paws, and fell dead to the dust.

Bile rose in Immanuelle’s throat, and she choked back the sick as Ezra returned to his seat, tilting the rifle against the bench. He took the reins from her shaking hands and snapped them twice, urging the horse past the hound’s bleeding corpse. Neither he nor Immanuelle said a word.

After a few more minutes, the cart rounded a bend and started down the long, jagged road that led to the Moore land. The light of the farmhouse appeared in the distance, glowing through the rolling waves of wheatgrass.

As they neared, Ezra said, “In the morning, then? At daybreak?”

Immanuelle muttered something less than holy under her breath, but conceded, knowing it was futile to argue. “Yes, and bring that rifle of yours. You may well need it.”

BOOK: The Year of the Witching
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