Read The Year of the Witching Online
Authors: Alexis Henderson
“I’ll hold her,” said Immanuelle, stepping forward to take the child. She cradled the nameless girl against her chest, shielding her from the wandering gazes of the Haven girls and servants who gathered to gawk.
Across the room, Martha worked fervently at the table, her hands shaking as she pierced the needle through Leah’s wound, struggling to suture it, to stop the blood from flowing.
“Don’t let her see,” Esther mouthed from across the room, dabbing Leah’s forehead with a cold compress.
So Immanuelle kept her distance, holding that child to her chest in the shadows by the hearth, trying in vain to soothe her. It was only when Hagar, leaning on her cane, whispered, “Ashes to ashes,” that she raised her gaze to the table again, and saw Leah sprawled—limp and breathless—her glazed eyes fixed on the ceiling.
Immanuelle clutched the child closer. “No. She’s not, is she . . . ?”
“Dead.” The word rattled through the room as Martha drew away from the table. She raised her eyes to Immanuelle, and tears moved down her cheeks. “She’s dead.”
Immanuelle didn’t remember who took the child from her arms. She didn’t remember crossing through the halls or fleeing the Haven. She only came to when a cold blast of night air struck her across the face like a slap.
All at once, she was on her knees gagging and gasping for breath, her whole body heaving like the blight raged in her too. The tears followed and great sobs racked her, snatching the breath from her lungs.
Immanuelle didn’t know how long she crouched there—weeping in the shadows—but she remembered seeing the tops of
Ezra’s boots as he stepped down the stairs and catching the scent of him as he wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her to his chest.
He held her as she cried, her face buried in the folds of his shirt, grasping at his hands as if his flesh and bones were her only tether to the world—and perhaps, in that moment, they were.
“You’ll be all right,” he murmured into her hair, again and again, like a prayer. And as he said it, she began to believe him, began to believe that whatever evil had fallen upon the land, she would survive it. After all, the curse was bred from her. She was it, and it was her. The sin and the salvation, the plague and the purgings, all bound up into one body by a bargain of blood.
Yes, Ezra was right; she would be all right. She would watch all of Bethel burn without sustaining so much as a scratch because Lilith and her legion had no interest in harming their savior, the curse bearer, the soul of the plagues themselves.
She’d been used, betrayed by her mother, sold to the witches. And now—as if her fate wasn’t cruel enough—she would watch in silent suffering as everything she loved and cared for was gutted and slaughtered and picked to pieces. Then, once the plagues were finally over, she would remain, a lone survivor amidst the bones and ashes.
I am with you until the end.
LEAH BURNED FOUR
days later. As a wife of the Prophet, she had a small ceremony and a pyre of her own. Huddled around the flames was a crowd of mourners, comprised mostly of Leah’s kin, who’d come up from the village for the occasion, and a few of the wives who’d dared to venture down from the Prophet’s Haven. Ezra’s mother, Esther, was among them. Most of the mourners stood well clear of the flames with wet cloths pressed to their mouths, afraid of catching the blight from the ashes.
“It’s always the kind ones who keep secrets,” said Martha, squinting into the light of the fire. “Always the kind ones who best hide their sins.”
The pyre logs shifted, and a spray of embers stormed through the smoke-thick air.
“Leah didn’t sin,” said Immanuelle. “We took what we wanted from her, ripped it from her belly, and then we watched her die.”
She waited for Martha’s retort—a scolding, a slap across the face—but silence was all she deigned to offer. And the silence was worse.
Immanuelle shifted her gaze back to the pyre. Through the
bloody glow of the flames, she locked eyes with the Prophet. He stood among his apostles, watching his bride burn. His eyes, like Martha’s, were dead.
Something settled deep within Immanuelle. It took her a moment to recognize the feeling. It wasn’t the flames of anger stoked, or the cold throes of grief. No, this was something grim and quiet . . . something sinister.
After all, it was he who put Leah on that pyre. If he hadn’t lusted for her when she was so young—just a girl doing her penance in the Haven—if he hadn’t allowed himself to cow to his own sick depravity, then she would have never fallen pregnant before her cutting. Nor would she have been forced to keep such a horrible secret. If the Prophet hadn’t been trying to cover for his own sin, they would have sought Martha’s aid far earlier, and if they had done that, then maybe, just maybe, Leah would be alive today. But instead, he let her bleed, let her suffer for his sin. But the blame didn’t end with him.
This was the great shame of Bethel: complacency and complicity that were responsible for the deaths of generations of girls. It was the sickness that placed the pride of men before the innocents they were sworn to protect. It was a structure that exploited the weakest among them for the benefit of those born to power.
It made Immanuelle want to scream. Made her want to fall to her knees and carve the dirt with sigils and curses and the promise of plagues. It made her want to tear the cathedral apart, brick by brick. Burn the chapels and the Haven, the great manors of the apostles, set the pastures and farms alight. Her rage was such that she felt it would never be sated unless Bethel was brought to its knees. And that frightened her.
Immanuelle walked, adopting the pace of the other mourners
who circled the outskirts of the fire. Ezra didn’t offer his condolences as he fell into step beside her. He didn’t say anything at all, and for a little while they just walked in silence, shoulder to shoulder, stalling every few moments to watch the flames. Immanuelle was aware of the gazes that followed them as they went. Martha tracked them from across the pyre. A few paces from her, the Prophet and his brood of apostles stood watching.
Let them talk,
Immanuelle thought to herself. In the end, it wouldn’t make a difference, and she was certain that the end was coming quickly. Her attempts to break the curse had failed. Her prayers to the Father went unanswered. They had nothing now; there was no one to save them, and no way to keep the coming plagues at bay. Soon darkness would be upon them, and after darkness—slaughter. And sometimes she thought, in light of everything—the lies, the secrets, the killings, the sin—slaughter was exactly what they deserved.
But that was just her anger speaking. That was just the grief.
Bethel didn’t deserve this, any more than she deserved to be a vessel of these plagues. There were still innocents living within its borders—Glory, Honor, the people of the Outskirts, men and women who had no choice in their fate. It was for them that Immanuelle had to find an answer to these plagues, a way to stop them. And she’d spent the days after Leah’s death searching for just that, knowing that if she failed, Bethel would pay a steep price.
What she needed was someone to turn to, an authority on the dark craft and the ways of the witches. Someone who understood the Darkwood and the secret to containing its power. A person who knew what Miriam had done and had an idea of how to break the curse she cast all those years ago. She needed a witch or, at the very least, an informant who walked a similar path. And the way Immanuelle saw it, there was but one person left to turn to: her grandmother Vera Ward.
She was the true tie between Miriam and the powers of the dark. The same sigils scrawled into the pages of her mother’s journal and the walls of the cabin in the woods were carved into the foundation stones of Vera’s house. It was plain to Immanuelle, given the path on the cusp of the Ward land, that it was Vera who first led Miriam to the cabin for sanctuary. Vera who saw her through the winter. And, perhaps, it was Vera who first introduced Miriam to the power of the plagues. After all, where else would the wayward daughter of an apostle have stumbled upon such evil? How would she have discovered the ways of witches if not through Vera, a known witch herself?
That was why Immanuelle needed to find her grandmother, to discover if she knew how to stop the plagues that she’d been complicit in creating. Because if anyone knew what Miriam had done in the woods all those years ago, or how to stop it, Immanuelle knew it must be her.
But to find Vera before the next plague struck, she would need to leave Bethel and do it soon. A small part of her wondered whether her departure was for the best. Maybe if she left, the horrors of the plagues would leave with her and everything would go back to the way it was supposed to be. Bethel would be saved.
But something told her that Lilith, in all her power and years of wisdom, would not be foiled so easily. The plagues were intended to destroy Bethel, and a jaunt through the Hallowed Gate wouldn’t be enough to end them. She would have to find another way.
Across the fire, the Prophet parted from the throng of his apostles and began to walk alone, wading through the crowds. But his gaze wasn’t on the flames.
It was on Immanuelle.
The day of her confession, the Prophet warned her that the Father was always watching, but it seemed that He wasn’t the only one. Whenever she was near, the Prophet’s gaze fell to her.
At the cathedral, it followed her through the pews. During his Sabbath sermons, she’d often feel as if he was preaching only to her. Even when she was in the privacy of her bedroom, when the night was dark and the house was quiet, his presence seemed to haunt her.
Immanuelle walked a little faster, dropping her voice to a whisper. “How is Leah’s baby? I haven’t heard any word of her since the night she was born.”
“She’s alive,” Ezra murmured, as if that was the most that could be said for her.
“Is she in danger?” Immanuelle asked, thinking back on that wretched night when Martha announced that the child had no name. She was as good as cursed. “Will they hurt her?”
Ezra took his time with an answer. When he spoke, his voice was so low she could barely hear him above the roar of the flames. “No. I won’t let them. She’s safe.”
“You should come to the Haven to visit her. In a few days, once the mourning crowds have left. Leah would have wanted that.”
Immanuelle shook her head. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to make it.”
He stopped short. “Why?”
“Because I’m leaving, Ezra . . . and I need your help to do it.”
“I don’t understand.”
Immanuelle raked a hand through her curls and stared through the flames to the Prophet and his apostles. If the truth got out—if they knew what she was—they’d send her to a pyre like the one burning in front of her. And yet, despite that, she found herself wanting to confess, almost desperate to. Her secrets seemed to eat at her, and in that moment, more than anything else, she wanted to be free of them—if only so she felt a little less alone.
When she finally spoke, it was in a small, tear-choked whisper
so strangled and foreign that at first, she mistook her voice for someone else’s. “I caused the curses. The plagues are my fault.”
“What are you talking about?” Ezra asked sharply.
“I’m not sure you want to know, and even if you do, I’m not sure I can make you understand.”
She found her voice at last. “Weeks ago, I told you that I’d awakened the curses. At the time I thought that was true, but I was mistaken. I didn’t awaken the curses. I
“I don’t understand.”
“My mother did something unspeakable in the Darkwood, years ago. She made a deal with the witches, bound me to their magic. She made me a vessel of the plagues. That’s why I have to go.”
“You’re . . .
Bethel?” he demanded, and Immanuelle found it almost endearing that he seemed more shaken by the news of her departure than he did by her confession about the plagues.
She nodded. “The woman from my census file—Vera Ward, the one with the witch mark—she lives in a village called Ishmel north of the gate. I think it was she who harbored my mother during the months she spent in the wilderness.”
“How do you know that?”
“Days ago I went to the Outskirts. While I was there, I uncovered a path on the edge of her property, just a few yards from her house. It led me to a cabin in the woods, the same one my mother spoke of in her journal.”
Ezra mulled this for a moment, staring at his shoes. “And you’re certain this woman, your grandmother, has a connection to the plagues?”
Immanuelle nodded. “You saw the mark by her name in the census. And I know that she practiced the dark craft. The people in the Outskirts say she was a proper witch, but she fled Bethel before
your father had the chance to burn her. I think it was she who taught my mother the ways of the witches. So if I can find her—”
“You can find a way to stop the plagues your mother cast. The plagues she bound to you.”
Ezra was quiet for a moment, turning these ideas over in his head. “Warrants go through the gate’s guardsmen. I’d have to approach them with the proposition, days in advance. If I get the warrant into the right hands, there’s a chance I could keep it from my father.”
“And when the warrant is in their hands, what then?”
“Then the guardsmen have a legal obligation to open the gate for you. The only way that could be thwarted is if my father signed a warrant to annul mine. But he can’t do that if he doesn’t know the warrant exists.”
“So you’re saying you can do it? You can get me through the gate?”
“I’m saying I can get you
of Bethel. But coming back . . .”
“I know,” said Immanuelle, nodding. Bethel’s laws were unrelenting. Those who defied Holy Protocol by leaving illegally were deemed hostile foreigners. If Ezra’s warrant was revoked, or worse yet annulled, after her departure, she would never be allowed to return again. “I understand the repercussions of my choice to go. Once I leave Bethel, what becomes of me isn’t your responsibility. All I ask is that you get me through the Hallowed Gate.”
“Why should you have to go? You didn’t ask for any of this.”
“The plagues were birthed through me and because of that they’re my burden to bear, no one else’s. You didn’t choose to be Prophet, but you have the Sight just the same.”
“No, it’s not. The plagues are in me like the Sight is in you. It’s my sin to atone for. I’m the one responsible for fixing this.”
“Then stay. We can fix things together. Between the two of us we’ll find a way.”
Immanuelle shook her head, watching the flames wash over Leah’s bones. “The best thing I can do for Bethel is leave it.”
“And what if it’s all futile?” Ezra asked, putting words to the question she’d been too scared to ask. “What if you can’t find your kin? Or what if you do and she has no way to stop the plagues? What then? You’ll be alone out there.”
“I’m alone already.”
The hurt in Ezra’s eyes was unmistakable. “That’s not true.”
“Listen to me,” said Immanuelle, dropping her voice. “You’ll be the Prophet soon, and as Prophet you can’t continue defying the Protocol in order to protect me.”
“The Holy Scriptures won’t allow it. Don’t you understand? By the Church’s laws, I should be burning right now.”
“Damn the Scriptures. I’ll do what I want.”
“That was the path your father followed, and look what came of it.” Immanuelle tossed her hand toward the pyre, to Leah’s burning corpse. “You can’t allow yourself to rule with impunity the way he did.”
“This isn’t about him,” Ezra snapped, truly angry now. “You said it yourself, weeks ago, he’s dying. Soon enough, his bones will be locked in a crypt like the rest of the prophets who came before him. So what difference does it make? The flock, the apostles, the Prophet and his Guard. Let the plagues come and drive them all apart, and then when it’s over—when they’re burning on their own pyres or rotting in the ground—you’ll be safe.”