Authors: Alexis Henderson
To avoid gawking, Immanuelle turned her gaze to the room. The cottage was larger on the inside than it appeared on the outside. The parlor was tastefully decorated, the floors laid with bearskins, the tables adorned with little trinkets like doilies and candles and books of poetry. The air smelled of yeast and spice, and the remnants of their dinner were still on the table. In an armchair by the hearth, two kittens, one gray, one black, slept blissfully.
Not knowing what to say or what to do, Immanuelle sipped on the honeyed tea in silence.
Vera watched her drink, impassive, near sullen, despite Sage’s failed attempts at rousing a conversation. It was only when Immanuelle had finished her tea that Vera finally spoke. “How did you find me?”
“I went to the Outskirts,” said Immanuelle, setting her cup down on a delicate pedestal of a side table. “There was a priest there who knew you. He said I might find you here.”
“And you traveled alone?” Sage asked, settling herself on a low stool by the hearth. Immanuelle realized, self-consciously, that she was occupying what must have been her seat, and she started to get up, but the woman waved her away.
“I wasn’t entirely alone. I had a friend who rode with me through Bethel. He got me through the gate, but . . .” The image of Ezra standing in the middle of the road, rifle raised, swarmed by the Prophet’s guards, surfaced in her reverie. She closed her eyes against the memory, shook her head. “He didn’t make it through.”
“And what of your family?” Sage asked gently.
“They’re still in Bethel.”
It was Vera who spoke next. “Do they know that you’re here?”
Vera leaned forward—legs parted, forearms braced on her kneecaps the way a man might sit. “And do they know
Immanuelle shook her head, rushing to explain herself. “I didn’t tell them where I was going or that you’re here. I wouldn’t have betrayed your privacy that way.”
Vera appraised her by the wan candlelight as if trying to determine whether or not she was telling the truth. “Were you followed?”
Immanuelle started to shake her head, then faltered.
Vera’s eyes sparked with frustration. “It’s a simple question: Were you followed? Yes or no?”
“I was . . . but only at first. The Prophet’s Guard stopped pursuing me as soon as I got beyond the gate. I didn’t see another soul on the road until I came upon Ishmel.”
To this, Vera said nothing. She stood and took a pipe from its box on the mantel, filled the bowl with snuff from a pretty tin, and lit up. She fixed her eyes on Immanuelle. Exhaled a mouthful of smoke. “Why did you come?”
said Sage, a rebuke cut through gritted teeth. “Maybe you ought to let the girl rest before the interrogation begins?”
“We need to know why she’s here.”
“Look at her, V. She’s yours. She’s here for you. Or are you so jaded that you can’t see your own kin when they’re sitting right in front of you?”
Vera’s eyes narrowed behind a veil of pipe smoke.
“Please,” said Immanuelle, weary and weak. The quilt around her shoulders felt as heavy as a stone-filled knapsack. “I have no one else. Just let me explain myself, and if you want no part of me after that, I promise I’ll leave.”
Vera studied her for a long beat. A muscle in her jaw flexed and spasmed. “It’s late. Whatever you’ve come to say will have to wait until the morning. Sage.” She turned to her companion. “Prepare the room.”
To be a woman is to be a sacrifice.
IFE OF THE
TUCKED INTO BED,
under a thick covering of quilts and bearskins, Immanuelle lay awake listening to the hushed tones of chatter on the other side of the wall. The conversation between Vera and her companion sounded like the rapid-fire beginnings of an argument, but their hissing whispers made it difficult to distinguish anything more than a few words.
“Dangerous” was one that came up often. “Obligation” was another.
Immanuelle closed her eyes, trying not to cry. She wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting to find upon arriving in Ishmel, but it wasn’t this. Perhaps she had been naive to expect a warmer welcome. After all, shared blood didn’t negate the fact that she and Vera were strangers. Still, Immanuelle had hoped that her arrival would be met with something more than outright coldness. Her disappointment, when coupled with the sting of Martha’s betrayal, was almost too much to bear. To be shunned by one grandmother—the woman who had raised her like a daughter—was bad enough. But to be cast aside by another, mere days later, seemed like a particularly cruel punishment.
The night wore on, but she didn’t feel tired, due perhaps to the disorientation caused by the never-ending night. Without the rise and fall of the sun, she found that she was often caught in the limbo between waking and sleeping.
To pass the time, Immanuelle let her gaze roam around the bedroom. It was a well-kept place, tastefully decorated, with mirrors and little paintings hanging on the walls. The dozen candles that cluttered the top of the dresser were unlit, but the cast-iron stove in the corner glowed softly, limning the room with a haze of firelight. If the dust on the nightstand was any indication at all, the bedroom was rarely used. This struck Immanuelle as odd, given that it was the second of two in the house.
Eventually, she fell into a fitful slumber—filled with the sort of thin dreams that are prone to fading the moment one becomes conscious again. She didn’t know how long she slept, but when she woke, it was to darkness and the smell of fresh-fried bacon.
Immanuelle sat up and slipped out of bed, surprised to see that she was dressed in a thick nightgown, though she had no memory of changing out of her damp travel clothes. There was a knit shawl draped over the headboard, and she wrapped it around her shoulders before leaving the bedroom. The parlor was candlelit, aglow with kerosene lamps and a wrought iron chandelier that dangled from the ceiling by a thick chain. In the far corner of the room, a cast-iron stove, which Sage stood in front of, humming a trilling song that sounded far livelier than any hymn Immanuelle knew.
Sage turned to set a platter on the table and startled at the sight of her. “You’re just as soft-footed as Vera. I can never hear when she’s approaching.”
“Forgive me,” said Immanuelle, stalling in the space between the parlor and the kitchen, unsure of where to go or what to do.
Sage waved her off with a smile. “Please, eat.”
Immanuelle obeyed, settling herself in front of a large plate of eggs and thick-cut bacon, roast potato, and fat-fried corn cake. She was famished, and she ate like it, but Sage seemed delighted by her ravenous appetite.
“You look so much like her,” said Sage wistfully. “I just knew you were Vera’s kin the moment I laid eyes on you.”
“Are you a Ward too?”
Sage shook her head. “Gods no. Just a road rat like most of those in Ishmel. I don’t think I would have ever settled down if I hadn’t met Vera.”
“And you’ve been . . .” Immanuelle searched for the right word. “Together, all this time?”
“Eleven years,” said Sage, with no small amount of pride. “I suppose you could say we’re very well matched.”
In truth, Immanuelle wasn’t entirely sure what Sage was trying to say, but she thought it might have something to do with the way that the Lovers clung to each other in the woods. Then there was the matter of the spare room, sparse and untouched, and the larger bedroom with two night tables instead of one and a mattress too big for a single person. “I’m glad she found you.”
Sage blushed, seeming touched. “Well, that’s very kind of you.”
Immanuelle sopped up a bit of egg yolk with a piece of fried corn cake. “Where is she?”
“Vera went to a council meeting in the village,” said Sage, leaning across the table to refill Immanuelle’s mug of tea. “She’ll be back soon, I’m sure. She won’t want to stay away long. Not while you’re here.”
A small silence. Immanuelle finished the last of the food on her plate. “Have you been touched by the plagues?”
Sage shook her head, then faltered. “Not in the same way you were. Our waters were only laced with blood for a few days. But we heard stories of the taint that afflicted Bethel. Once we found
a woman, naked and mad with fever, roaming the mountain wilds just beyond Ishmel’s edge. Her head was cut with that mark your women wear, so we knew she was Bethelan. She died in the village, just a few days after we found her. Nothing the doctors did could ease her suffering. No tincture or herb could touch it.” She paused for a beat, frowning at the memory. “But we have not been made to endure the same horrors your people have. Whatever that evil is, it’s been largely contained in the borders of Bethel. But Vera thinks there’s a chance the contagion could spread to Ishmel, with time.”
“She’s wise to be cautious.”
Sage stood to clear her plates. “Vera is nothing if not that. But I do hope that you haven’t mistaken her wariness for malice. I know she’s . . . rather harsh at times, but she is happy to see you. I think she’s been waiting for you for so long that she doesn’t know what to do with herself or how to feel now that you’re here. But it’ll pass. You two just need a chance to acclimate to each other, that’s all.”
As if on cue, the front door swung open, and Vera entered. She slipped out of her coat, which, like the rest of her clothes, appeared cut for a man. She took a seat at the table and helped herself to the food Sage prepared. As she ate, she deftly dodged her partner’s questions about her morning, only offering nods and the occasional one-word answer when she was forced to speak.
Sage, perhaps realizing this was some subtle cue of dismissal, announced that she was going outside to feed the chickens and clean their coop. With her gone, a long silence lapsed between Vera and Immanuelle, broken only by the roaring of the hearth.
It was Vera who spoke first. “I can’t tell who you favor more: my boy or your mother.”
It was the first time she’d made mention of Daniel, and the significance of the moment wasn’t lost on either of them.
“I always hoped that I favored him,” said Immanuelle haltingly. “When I was little, I used to look in the mirror and try to imagine myself as a boy, so I’d know what he might’ve looked like.”
Vera’s expression was hard to read. She and Martha were so alike in their stoicism. “I wish I had a portrait to show you, but the Prophet’s Guard burned everything I had left of him.”
“Not everything,” Immanuelle said, and she stood up, walked to the door where she’d dropped her knapsack the night prior, and dug until she found her mother’s journal. She carried it back to the table, opened it to the page that contained the portrait of Daniel, then slid it across the table.
Vera took it, her hand shaking some, and stared down at the sketch for a long, long time in silence. “Your mother always had a good hand. This is him, all right. Just as I . . .” She shook her head. “Thank you. It’s been a long time since I’ve looked upon his face.”
“What . . . was he like?” Immanuelle said, unsure if it was a question she was allowed to ask. It seemed like such a grave and sacred thing, to ask a mother to resurrect the memory of her dead son. But Vera didn’t seem fazed.
“He was a quiet boy. Kind, though he didn’t seem like it upon first meeting.” Vera smiled down at the picture of her frowning son, traced the furrows in his brow with the tip of her finger. “I like to think that he saw the world for what it was. Most people can’t do that. Even prophets are blinded by their own vices. But not Daniel. He saw the truth in everything.”
Immanuelle took the book back, pressed a hand to the opposing page, putting pressure on the binding, and painstakingly ripped the portrait out of the journal, then slid it back to Vera. “Here. It ought to be yours.”
The woman shook her head. “He’s your kin too.”
“But I never had the chance to lose him. He was your son. You should have it.”
“I have my memories. Besides, this is your mother’s work.”
“It’s okay. Take it, please. As a gift for your hospitality.”
“Hospitality,” said Vera, and she laughed without a trace of humor. “Hospitality is putting food on the table for a stranger. It’s welcoming an acquaintance over for plum cobbler and tea. But this isn’t that. This is me doing what I should have done, years ago. I should have waited for you. I should have taken you with me—”
“It’s not your fault.”
“But it is . . . at least in part.”
Immanuelle shook her head and slid the drawing across the table again. “It’s yours. Take it.”
Vera didn’t move. Her gaze became hard again, the way it had been last night. She nodded to the journal. “Who gave you that?”
Immanuelle saw no point in lying now, when she’d come all this way to learn the truth. “It was a gift from two women. Witches that I encountered in the Darkwood.”
Vera’s expression remained unchanged. She leaned back into her seat. “Why did you come?”
Immanuelle reached for Miriam’s journal and opened it to the final pages, with the writings:
Blood. Blight. Darkness. Slaughter
. She slid it across the table to Vera.
The woman stared down at the journal. Immanuelle couldn’t parse her expression, but she knew one thing: Her grandmother wasn’t surprised.
“You knew,” said Immanuelle, so softly she wasn’t sure she spoke the words aloud. “You knew about the cabin. You knew about the plagues and the witches and the deal my mother cut with them in the Darkwood. You knew she sold me off.”
Vera stared at her, clearly confused. “Miriam didn’t sell you to the witches. Your mother loved you. She chose you over everything else. Her home, her family, her life, even her soul.”
“That isn’t true. I don’t know what she told you, or what you
think you knew of my mother, but she didn’t love me the way you loved Daniel. She made no sacrifices on my behalf. She sold me out. She bound me to darkness before I was even born. My mother bought the plagues with my blood. All she cared about was vengeance.”
“Your Mother was trying to protect you. Everything that girl had to give, she gave to you.”
“If that’s true, why did she cast the curses?” Immanuelle demanded, growing angry now. “I saw the cabin myself. I know what those sigils on the walls mean. If she loved me so much, why would she use me like that?”
“Like I said, she was trying to protect you.”
“By making me a weapon? A pawn in Lilith’s hands?”
“Miriam was trying to give you the power that she never had. But she was grieving and afraid and sixteen years old and more vulnerable than she knew. Lilith could see that. She perverted Miriam’s desire to protect you, preyed on her weakness. I watched it happen. Every time she ventured into the woods, she was a little more mad than the time before. In the end, I think she was more like them than she was us.”
“In what way?”
Vera paused before answering, as if to sort through her thoughts. “In life, most of us have the luxury of nuance. We may be angry, but we balance that anger with mercy. We may be filled with joy, but that doesn’t prohibit us from empathizing with those who aren’t. But after we die, that changes and we’re distilled down to our most rudimentary compulsions. A single desire so powerful it trumps all others.”
“Like Lilith and her desire for revenge?”
Vera nodded. “Toward the end, your mother became the same way. She was obsessed with protecting you, imbuing you with the
power and freedom she so desperately wanted but never had. It was like she lived for nothing else, so she might as well have been dead.”
The explanation accounted for Miriam’s madness. The writings and sketches in her journal, her singular obsession with the Darkwood and the witches it harbored. But something still plagued Immanuelle, stoked the flames of her rage. “If you knew all that—if you knew my mother was being manipulated and used by Lilith, driven mad by her grief—then why didn’t you do something to stop it?”
Vera struggled with an answer. “Because at the time . . . I was as sick as she was. I’d lost my boy, watched him burn alive on the pyre before my eyes, and his screams, they haunted me like the witches did your mother. But I didn’t know Miriam would wield the plagues or bring all of this upon your head.”
Immanuelle mulled this for a moment in silence, trying to decide whether or not she believed her. “The cabin where she cast those curses, it was yours?”