Read The Year of the Witching Online
Authors: Alexis Henderson
The blond girl, Hope, who had called to Leah, piped up first. “You two look like you’re making the most of your day.”
Leah raised a hand to her brow to shade her eyes from the sun, smiling as she peered up at them. “Will you join us?”
Immanuelle cursed silently as the four sat down in the grass beside them. The ox boy, Peter, began rummaging through the contents of the picnic basket, helping himself to a hearty serving of bread and jam. Hope wedged herself between Immanuelle and Leah and immediately began prattling on about the latest gossip of the town, which largely centered on some poor girl who had been sent to the market stocks for tempting a local farmer into adultery. Ezra claimed the spot across from Immanuelle, and Judith flanked him, sitting so close that their shoulders touched.
As the conversation wore on, Immanuelle did her best to make herself small and unassuming, willing herself invisible. Unlike Leah, she didn’t have a stomach for socialities. In comparison to the grace and charm of Hope, Leah, and Judith, she suspected she looked about as dull as one of her sister’s corn-husk dolls.
Across the picnic basket, Ezra also sat in silence, his ceremonial dagger glinting in the sun. He seemed distracted, almost bored, not even bothering to nod along to the conversation as his gaze scanned the distant plains, east to west, then back again. He watched the horizon like he was looking for something, and Immanuelle couldn’t help but wonder what. Ezra hadn’t had his First Vision yet and wouldn’t until his father’s life was coming to an end. Such was the way of succession—a young prophet’s rise to power always meant the demise of his senior.
Beside Ezra, Judith sucked a bit of butter off the tips of her fingers, squinting at Immanuelle through the thick fringe of her lashes. She wore a yellow dress like the rest of the Prophet’s wives,
but the fit was a little too snug to be modest. Her skirts tangled about her legs, and her bodice was cinched tight, nipping her waist and accentuating the sweeping dip of her hips beneath the folds of her underskirts. The seal between her eyebrows was still pink, and a little swollen, but scarring well enough.
Immanuelle remembered the day Judith had gotten her first blood. The three of them, Leah, Immanuelle, and Judith, had been out in the schoolyard together, plucking mushrooms from a fairy patch, when Judith began to cry. She’d lifted her skirts high above her knees, revealing a single thread of blood trickling down her right leg and disappearing into the shadow of her boot. Their teacher had been quick to whisk her away, but not before Immanuelle heard her whisper in Judith’s ear: “You’re a woman. You’re a woman now.”
And so she was.
Judith had been quick to forsake her girlhood. She unbound her braids and piled her hair atop her head, traded smocks and pinafores for corsets and bodices, and adopted all the graces and finery of womanhood in a way that made it seem like she’d been born to them.
Judith licked the last of the butter from her fingertips and leaned closer to Immanuelle, so close she caught the sweet balm of her perfume. “Is it true what they say about you?”
The question took Immanuelle by surprise, though it shouldn’t have. It was the same one she saw on the lips of every loose-tongued telltale in Bethel. They’d all been saying the same thing since the night her mother turned the Prophet’s blade against him, nearly slitting his throat before fleeing to the Darkwood. They held her name in their mouths like a foul thing that was relished nonetheless.
“That depends,” said Immanuelle, feigning ignorance. “What do they say?”
Judith shrugged, smirking. “Well, I suppose if you don’t know already, it must not be true.”
“I suppose not,” she ground out through gritted teeth.
Judith cocked her head to the side. “So, you don’t have a Gift?”
Immanuelle shook her head.
There was a time when Gifts hadn’t been a rarity. Long ago, in the Age of Light, the Father had blessed multitudes with the power to wield wonders and work miracles. But ever since the Holy War, and the dark ages that followed, Gifts had become scarce. With every passing year, there were fewer of them, as the saints of old went to their graves and took their powers with them. Now Martha was one of the few midwives in Bethel with the Gift of Naming, and only prophets possessed the Gift of Sight. Even the apostles were limited to a select few with the power of Discernment—a Gift that allowed one to tell truth from falsehood—or the Healing Touch. In Immanuelle’s generation, Gifts had been bestowed upon only a handful of the Father’s most favored—and as a bastard by birth, she was anything but.
“Pity,” said Judith, leveling her gaze. “I was hoping there was
remarkable about you. Considering.”
Immanuelle stiffened. “Considering what?”
Judith arched a perfect brow and a cruel smile played over her lips. “Well, your mother, of course.”
Immanuelle had known the mention of her mother was coming. It always did. But something about the way Judith said it now doubled the insult, making it sting more than usual.
For a long moment there was silence, save for the babbling of the river and the drone of the wasps lurking among the wildflowers. Even the distant chatter of the other churchgoers seemed to quiet, lost to the rush of wind in the woodland. Then . . .
“You know,” said Immanuelle. “Now that I consider it . . . I
have a knack for dancing naked in the woods—with the beasts and
devils, of course. It’s hard to find the time, what with all the sheep I shepherd, but when the full moon rises, I do what I can.” She smiled brightly at Judith. “Like mother, like daughter, I suppose.”
There was a pause, the hiss of breath drawn. Leah winced as the group fell once again into complete and utter silence.
For the first time since he’d sat down the Prophet’s son, Ezra, turned his attention from the horizon. His eyes fixed on Immanuelle.
She knew then that she’d made a mistake. A sinful, foolish mistake made in the heat of anger. A mistake that she would no doubt pay for with a scolding or lashing, or perhaps even a day in the market stocks.
But then, to her surprise, Ezra’s lips skewed into a lopsided grin and he began to laugh. It wasn’t a mean laugh, but the boisterous kind that comes deep from the belly. His shoulders shook, and his black hair fell across his eyes. After a moment, Peter joined him, with a barking bellow that carried across the churchyard and drew stares from the kinfolk standing in the shadow of the cathedral. This, in turn, made Ezra laugh even harder. In a matter of seconds, Leah and Hope joined in, and then at last, even Immanuelle cracked a small smile. Before she knew it, all of them were cackling together like a band of old friends.
All except Judith, who did little more than choke out a scandalized cough as she stood. She tugged Ezra up with her, pulling on his arm, but as he rose to his feet, he offered Immanuelle that crooked smile of his again.
“Until the next Sabbath,” he called over his shoulder as Judith ushered him back to the cathedral, back to his father, the Prophet, and away from Immanuelle. But as he entered the waves of swaying high grass, he paused, turning back to look at her. Something flickered through his eyes, and in that moment, she could have sworn he saw the truth of her.
For the Father is good, and His goodness is everlasting. He smiles down from the heavens to bestow His flock with blessings, that they might find contentment in His light.
THAT EVENING, THE
Moores gathered for their usual Sabbath dinner. Martha tended a bubbling vat of chicken stew that hung on an iron hook above the crackling fire, mopping sweat from her brow with the back of her hand. While she hunched over the hearth, Anna mixed batter bread with both hands, folding in fistfuls of flaxseeds and crushed walnuts, singing hymns as she worked. Immanuelle ducked between the two of them, taking on different tasks and trying her best to be of help. She was clumsy in the kitchen, but she did what she could to aid them.
Anna, ever cheerful, was the first to break the silence. “It was a good service this morning, wasn’t it?”
Immanuelle set a pewter plate down at the head of the table, before her grandfather’s empty chair. “That it was.”
Martha said nothing.
Anna plunged her fists into the bread dough again. “When the Prophet spoke, I felt like the air had been sucked right out of me. He’s a true man of the Father, that one. More so than other prophets, even. We’re lucky to have him.”
Immanuelle set one spoon beside Martha’s plate and another
beside Honor’s bowl, a little wooden thing she’d carved and polished some three summers ago, when the child had been no bigger than a minnow in Anna’s womb. For Anna’s eldest, Glory, she reserved the brass spoon she liked best, an antique Martha had bought from a market peddler years ago.
Glory, like her mother, had an appetite for pretty things: ribbons and lace and sweets and other delights the Moores couldn’t afford. But when she could, Immanuelle tried her best to oblige the girl with little tokens. There were so few pretty things left in the house. Most of their treasures and trinkets had been sold during the thick of the winter in an attempt to make up for the bad reap and all the livestock they’d lost to sickness the past summer. But if Immanuelle had anything to say about it, Glory would have her spoon, a small token to offset their world of lack.
When the meal was prepared, Martha carried the vat of stew to the table and set it down with a loud thump that carried through the house. At the sound, Honor and Glory raced into the dining room, eager to fill their seats and eat. The wives sat next, Immanuelle’s grandmother, Martha, claiming her place at the opposite end of the table, as was custom, and Anna, second wife of Immanuelle’s grandfather, claiming the seat beside her husband’s empty chair.
After a few long moments, there was the groan of hinges, the sound of a door opening, then the pained and shuffling racket of Abram making his way down the stairs. Her grandfather was having a bad day; Immanuelle could tell by the sound of his gait, the way his stiff foot dragged across the groaning floorboards as he moved toward the table. He had skipped church again that morning, making it the third Sabbath he’d missed in a month.
Once, long ago, Abram had been an apostle—and a powerful one too. He had been the right hand of Simon Chambers, the prophet who served before the current prophet, Grant Chambers,
had been chosen and ordained. As such, Abram had once owned one of the seven estates in the sacred Holy Grounds, and he had wielded the Father’s Gift of Discernment. At age nineteen, he married Martha. The two of them were well yoked, both in age and in status, but despite this, the Father did not bless them with children for a long time. In fact, after years of trying, Abram and Martha were only able to conceive Miriam, and her birth was succeeded by a series of stillborns, all of them sons. Many later claimed that Miriam’s birth damned the children who were born after her, said that her very existence was a plague to the good Moore name.
On account of Miriam’s crimes, Abram had been stripped of his title as apostle, and all the lands that went with it. The Moore stead, which had once been a rolling range so big it rivaled the Prophet’s, was divided up among the other apostles and nearby farmers, who picked it apart like vultures do a carcass. Abram had been left with a small fragment of the land he once owned, shadowed by the same rambling forest to which he’d lost his daughter. Such was the life he lived now, in ridicule and squalor, scraping together an existence from the meager reap of pastures and blighted cornfields that were his only claim.
It had been nothing short of a miracle that Anna agreed to follow Abram to the altar eighteen years ago despite the shame of Miriam’s fall from grace. Immanuelle suspected that her loyalty stemmed from the fact that Abram had used his Healing Touch to save her when she was dying of fever as a young girl. It was as though she owed him a kind of life debt and was steadfast in her resolve to fulfill it. Perhaps that was why her love for Abram seemed more akin to the way the apostles revered the Holy Father than to the common affections between husband and wife.
As Abram entered the dining room, Anna broke into a wide smile, the way she always did. But Abram paid her no mind as he
limped past the threshold. He paused to catch his breath, bracing his hands on the back of a broken chair. The right side of his body was clenched, his fingers twisted to near bone-breaking angles, his arm bent and drawn to his chest as if held by some invisible sling. He limped with his left leg thrown out to one side, and he had to brace himself on the wall to keep from falling as he dragged his way around the dining room to his seat at the head of the table.
He settled himself roughly in his chair, then began the prayer, struggling with the words. When it was finished, Abram raised his fork with his good hand and set into his food. The rest of them followed suit, the children eagerly spooning up the stew, as though they worried it would disappear before they’d have the chance to finish it. The sad truth was it was less a chicken stew and more a watery bone broth with a bit of parsnip, a few stray cabbage leaves, and the grisly scraps of the chicken. Even so, Immanuelle took pains to eat slowly, savoring every bite.
Anna took another stab at kindling conversation, but her attempts were futile. Martha kept her eyes on her stew and the girls were smart enough to stay silent, fearing their father’s wrath.
In turn, Abram didn’t say much. He rarely did on his bad days. Immanuelle could tell it pained him, to have once been the voice of the Prophet and now, in the years since her mother’s death, to be reduced to little more than the village pariah, cursed by the Father for his leniency. Or so the rumors went.
Really, Immanuelle knew little of what had happened to Abram after her mother died. All she knew were the scant morsels that Martha offered her, the fragments of a story too vile to be told in full.
Seventeen years ago, her mother, Miriam, newly betrothed to the Prophet, had taken up illicit relations with a farm boy from the Outskirts. Months later, after their affair was uncovered, that
same farm boy had died on the pyre as punishment for his crimes against the Prophet and Church.
But Miriam was spared, shown mercy by the Prophet on account of their betrothal.
Then, on the night before her wedding, Miriam—grief-mad and desperate to avenge her lover’s death—had stolen into the Prophet’s bedroom while he slept and tried to slit his throat with his own sacred dagger. But the Prophet had woken and fought her off, thwarting the attack.
Before the Prophet’s Guard had the chance to apprehend her, Miriam had fled into the forbidden Darkwood—the home of Lilith and her coven of witches—where she disappeared without a trace. Miriam claimed that she spent those brutal winter months alone in a cabin at the heart of the wilderness. But given the violence of that winter and the fact that the cabin was never found, no one in Bethel believed her.
Months passed with no sign of Miriam. Then one night, in the midst of a violent snowstorm, she emerged from the Darkwood, heavy with child—the sinful issue of her lover, who had died on the pyre. Mere days after her return, Miriam gave birth to Immanuelle.
While his daughter screamed in the midst of labor, Abram was struck by a stroke so violent it remade him, twisting his limbs and warping his bones and muscles, stripping him of his strength and stature, as well as the power of his Holy Gifts. And as Miriam struggled and labored and slipped into the afterlife, so nearly did he. It was only a miracle of the Father that saved him, dragging him back from the cusp of death.
But Abram had suffered for Miriam’s sins, and he would continue to suffer for them until the day he died. Perhaps he would have suffered less if he’d had the strength to shun Immanuelle for the sins of her mother. Or if he had simply shunned Miriam after
she’d returned pregnant from the woods, he may have found the Prophet’s favor once more.
But he hadn’t. And for that, Immanuelle was grateful.
“You’ll go . . . to the market . . . in the morning,” said Abram across the table, grinding the words between his teeth as he spoke, every syllable a struggle. “Sell the black yearling.”
“I’ll do my best,” Immanuelle said with a nod. If he was intent upon selling the yearling, their need must be dire. It had been a bad month, a bad month at the end of a string of terrible months. They desperately needed the money. Abram’s sickness had worsened in the winter after a bad bout of fever, and the steep costs of his medicines had pushed the family to the brink of ruin. It was vital that Immanuelle did her part to ease the burden, as they all did.
Everyone in the Moore house had some job or trade. Martha was a midwife blessed with Father’s Tongue and through it the power to call down Names from the heavens. Anna was a seamstress with a hand so gentle and an eye so keen she could darn even the finest lace. Abram, once a carpenter, had in the years after his stroke taken to whittling crude little figures that they sometimes peddled at the market. Even Glory, a talented artist despite the fact that she was barely twelve, painted little portraits on woodcuts she then sold to her friends at school. Honor, who was too young to take up a craft, helped around the farm as best she could.
And then there was Immanuelle, the shepherdess, who tended a flock of sheep with the help of a hired farm boy. Every morning, save for the Sabbath or the odd occasion when Martha called her along for a particularly risky birthing, Immanuelle would take to the pastures to watch over her sheep. Crook in hand, she’d lead them to the western range, where the flock would spend its day grazing in the shadows of the Darkwood.
Immanuelle had always felt a strange affinity for the Darkwood, a kind of stirring whenever she neared it. It was almost as though the forbidden wood sang a song that only she could hear, as though it was daring her to come closer.
But despite the temptation, Immanuelle never did.
On market days, Immanuelle took a selection of her wares—be it wool or meat or a ram—to the town market for peddling. There, she would spend the whole of her day in the square, haggling and selling her goods. If she was lucky, she’d return home after sundown with enough coppers to cover their weekly tithes. If she wasn’t, the family would go hungry, and their tithes and debts to Abram’s healers would remain unpaid.
Abram forced down another mouthful of stew, swallowing with some effort. “Sell him . . . for a good bit. Don’t settle for less than what he’s worth.”
Immanuelle nodded. “I’ll go early. If I take the path that cuts through the Darkwood, I’ll make it to the market before the other merchants.”
The conversation died into the clatter of forks and knives striking plates. Even Honor, young as she was, knew to mind her tongue. There was silence, save for the rhythmic
drip, drip, drip
of the leak in the corner of the kitchen.
Martha’s cheeks all but drained of color and her lips were bloodless. “You never go into those woods, you hear? There’s evil in them.”
Immanuelle frowned. The way she saw it, sin wasn’t a plague you could catch if you ventured too close. And she wasn’t sure she believed all the legends about the evils in the womb of the Darkwood. In truth, Immanuelle wasn’t sure what she believed, but she was fairly certain a brief shortcut through the forest wouldn’t be her undoing.
Still, no good would come from an argument, and she knew
that in a battle of wills, she couldn’t win. Martha had a heart of iron and the kind of unwavering faith that could make stones tremor. It was futile to provoke her.
And so, Immanuelle bit her tongue, bowed her head, and resigned herself to obey.