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Authors: Alexis Henderson

The Year of the Witching (3 page)

BOOK: The Year of the Witching
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THAT NIGHT, IMMANUELLE
dreamed of beasts: a girl with a gaping mouth and the yellowed teeth of a coyote; a woman with moth wings who howled at the rising moon. She woke in the early morning to the echo of that cry, the sound slapping back and forth between the walls of her skull.

Bleary-eyed and drunk with exhaustion, Immanuelle dressed clumsily, trying to push the twisted images of the woodland ghouls from her mind as she fumbled into her button-down dress and readied herself for a day at the market.

Slipping out of the sleeping household, Immanuelle strode toward the far pastures. She began most every morning like this—tending to the sheep by the light of dawn. On the rare occasion when she couldn’t—like the week she caught whooping cough a few summers prior—a hired farmhand by the name of Josiah Clark stepped in to fill her role.

Immanuelle found her flock huddled together in the eastern pastures, just beyond the woodland’s shadow. Crows roosted in the branches of the oaks and birches in the nearby forest, though they sang no songs. The silence was as thick as the morning’s fog, and it was broken only by the sound of Immanuelle’s lullaby, which echoed through the foothills and distant fields like a dirge.

It wasn’t a normal lullaby, like the folk songs or nursery rhymes that mothers sing to their children, but rather a rendition of an old mourning hymn she had once heard at a funeral. Her song carried across the pastures, and at the sound her flock moved
east, sweeping like a tide across the rolling hills. They were upon her in moments, bleating and trotting happily, pressing up against her skirts. But the yearling ram, Judas, hung back from the rest, his hooves firmly planted and his head hanging low. Despite his age, he was a large and fearsome thing with a shaggy black coat and two sets of horns: the first set jutting like daggers from the crown of his skull, the second curling back behind his ears and piercing along the harsh cut of his jaw.

“Judas,” Immanuelle called above the hiss of wind in the high grass. “Come now, it’s time to go to the market.”

The ram struck the dirt with his hooves, his eyes squinted thin. As he stepped forward, the sheep stirred and parted, the little lambs tripping over their hooves to make way for him. He stopped just a few feet from Immanuelle, his head turned slightly to the side so he could stare at her through the twisted crook of his horn.

“We’re going to the market.” She raised the lead rope for him to see, the slack dangling above the ground. “I’ll need to tether you.”

The ram didn’t move.

Stooping to one knee, Immanuelle eased the loop of the knot over his horns, tugging the rope taut to tighten it. The ram fought her, kicking and bucking and throwing his head, striking the earth with his hooves. But she held fast, bracing her legs and tightening her grip, the rope chafing across her palms as Judas reared and struggled.

“Easy,” she said, never raising her voice above a murmur. “Easy there.”

The ram threw his head a final time and huffed hard, a cloud of steam billowing from his nostrils, thick as pipe smoke on the cold morning air.

“Come on, you old grump.” She urged him along with another tug on the lead rope. “We’ve got to get you to the market.”

The walk through the Glades was long, and despite the initial chill of the morning, the sun was hot. Trails of sweat slipped down Immanuelle’s spine as she trudged along the winding path to town. Had she taken the shortcut through the woodland—instead of the long way around the forest’s edge—she would have been in town already. But she’d promised Martha she’d stay clear of the woods, and she was determined to keep her word.

So Immanuelle trudged on, her knapsack weighing heavy on her shoulders as she went. Her feet ached in her boots, which were a size and a half too small and pinched her heels so badly they blistered. It often seemed like everything she owned was either too big or too small, like she wasn’t fit for the world she was born to.

Halfway to the market, Immanuelle stopped for breakfast. She found a cool spot in the shadow beneath a birch tree and rummaged through the contents of her knapsack for the wedge of cheese and brick-hard brown bread Anna had baked the night prior. She ate quickly, tossed the bread crusts to Judas, who snapped them up and bucked his head, tugging the lead rope so hard she had to seize him by the horns to keep him from bolting.

In the distance, the Darkwood stirred. It almost seemed to call to her as the wind breathed through the branches, like a hissing, secret tongue.

According to legends and the Holy Scriptures, the Darkwood, like all of the cursed and wretched things of the world, had been spawned by the Dark Mother, goddess of the hells. While the Good Father wrought the world with light and flame, breathing life into the dust, She summoned Her evils from the shadows, birthing legions of beasts and demons, mangled creatures and crawling things that lurked in the festering half-world between the living and the dead.

And it was from that half-world, from the corridors of the
cursed forest, that the first witches—Lilith, Delilah, and the two Lovers, Jael and Mercy—had first emerged. The Unholy Four (as they were later called) found a place among Bethel’s early settlers, who accepted them as refugees and offered them sanctuary. The women took husbands and birthed children, lived among the Father’s flock as allies and friends. But while the four witches wore the skin of human women, their souls were made in their Mother’s image, and like Her, they sought to destroy the Good Father’s creations, choking His light with their darkness and shadow.

The four witches planted seeds of discord in the hearts of good Bethelan men, tempting them and leading their souls astray. The roots of their deceit ran deep, and it wasn’t long before the rule of the land shifted into their hands. It was only by the Father’s grace that a young man by the name of David Ford—the first prophet—had rallied a brave army of holy crusaders to overthrow the four witches with fire and purging in a bloody rebellion, banishing their souls to the cursed woods from whence they came.

But the power of the witches and the dark Goddess they served remained long after the Holy War had ended. Even now, their ghosts still haunted the Darkwood, hungry for the souls of those who dared to enter their realm.

Or so the stories said.

Once Immanuelle had finished her breakfast, she rose to continue her journey through the Glades. The main road snaked closer to the Darkwood now, and she could see the memorials dotting the distant tree line. There were wreaths of wildflowers, tokens and tributes, even a small pair of children’s shoes hanging from a fence post by the laces—as though someone believed the child they belonged to might one day emerge from the trees to claim them. These relics were all that remained of those who were lost to the Darkwood. For what the forest took it rarely returned.

Immanuelle and her mother were exceptions to this—miracles, some said. But in her weakest moments, when the wind stirred through the pines and the crows sang their songs, Immanuelle felt as though the Darkwood still had a hold on her, as if it was calling her home again.

With a shiver, Immanuelle walked on, past the shacks and cabins and rolling cornfields, making her way along the forest’s edge, following the path of the stream. Overhead, the sun shifted, and the air grew thick and heavy. The sprawling pasture of the Glades gave way to the stone-paved streets of Amas—the village at the heart of Bethel. Here, barns and homesteads were replaced with a clutter of cobblestone cottages and slate-roofed town houses, stone buildings with stained-glass windows that glared brilliantly in the light of the noonday sun. In the distance, looming high above the rooftops, was one of the tallest structures in all of Bethel, surpassed only by the cathedral’s steeple. It was called the Hallowed Gate, and it was a wrought iron wonder built by the first prophet, David Ford.

Beyond the gate was a wide cobblestone road flanked by ever-burning streetlamps that was called the Pilgrim’s Way. If Bethel was an island in the vast sea of the forest, that road was a bridge to the foreign territories far beyond its borders. But as far as Immanuelle knew, only the Prophet’s Guard, apostles, and a selection of esteemed evangelists were allowed to leave Bethel, and only on rare occasions. And never—in all of Immanuelle’s sixteen years—had a single foreigner entered through the gate.

Sometimes Immanuelle wondered if the cities beyond the Bethelan territories were nothing more than myths. Or perhaps the ever-encroaching woodland had devoured them entirely, the way it might have Bethel if the Father’s light hadn’t forced its darkness back. But Immanuelle knew those ponderings were far above her station. The complexities of the world beyond the
Hallowed Gate were better left to the apostles and Prophet, who had the knowledge and discernment to parse them.

Tightening her grip on Judas’ lead rope, Immanuelle shouldered her way through the ever-thickening market crowds. As usual, the square was thronged with stalls. There were candle stands and a butcher with fly-swarmed meats on melting ice slabs. Next to the butcher, a large stall that sold fabric by the bolt, displaying an array of brocades and velvets, twills and soft silks. As Immanuelle passed the perfumer’s tent, she caught the scent of fine oil, brewed from flowers and myrrh musk.

The watchmaker had a stall just outside his cottage. On a long oak table, he peddled his clocks and timepieces to the fine men who dressed like they could afford them. Just a few paces from that, a shoe shop offered leather boots with buckles that were finer than anything Immanuelle had ever owned. Finer than anything she likely
would
ever own.

But she didn’t dwell on that. She made a point to hold her head high, never straying from the main road or even so much as breaking her pace to examine the wares. Judas trotted alongside her, his black hooves skittering across the cobbles. His ears quirked this way and that, nostrils flaring as he took in the sights and sounds of the marketplace. Sometimes he wandered, but Immanuelle kept the lead rope short so that he was never farther than a pace’s length from her hip.

At intervals along the road, crouching at the cobbled corners with bowls and coin cups, were beggars from the Outskirts. Many of them walked barefoot, rising to collect coins from the passersby who were kind enough to offer them. But most of the marketgoers ignored the beggars entirely. The Outskirters were exiles, after all, dismissed as the lower, less-favored children of the Father. A few of the more radical members of the flock suggested that their very appearance was a punishment, claimed that the rich ebony of their
skin was an outward sign of their inner allegiance to the Dark Mother, who bore their likeness.

There were many stories about how the Outskirters first came to Bethel, but the general understanding was that they were the descendants of refugees who fled there in the ancient days. There were many rumors about what they were fleeing. Some said it was a drought that turned the earth to ash. Others told stories of a sky that wept fire and brimstone. Still more claimed that a hungry sea had flooded their homeland, the tide swelling so high it drowned mountains and forced them to flee to the wilds.

A saint called Abdiah ruled the Church at that time. He said that the Father had punished these refugees for their allegiance to the Mother. Claimed that the plagues that drove them from their home were a form of divine retribution. He determined that it was the Father’s will to lead those in the Outskirts to Bethel, that they might continue the process of their sanctification through service to the Church. And so, at Abdiah’s bidding, for the first time in its centuries-long history, Bethel opened its gate to outsiders.

To prevent what Abdiah called the spread of fallacies, Outskirters were contained to a settlement on the southern cusp of Bethel. There, servants of the Church ministered to them—spreading the word of the Father, turning heathen to believer one soul at a time in what was later called the Great Evangelism. Over the passing decades, those in the Outskirts assimilated to the ways of Bethel. They adopted its faith and common tongue, continued their process of contrition through service to the Church. Gradually, as the generations passed, those in the Outskirts turned their back on their history, until they became more Bethelan than not. But it was clear to Immanuelle that they weren’t treated as such.
She
wasn’t treated as such.

Never mind the fact that most modern Outskirters bore the
blood of Bethelan settlers or that they fought against Lilith’s armies in the Holy War. Shared or spilled, it seemed that blood did not matter as much as appearance did. And so, no matter how many centuries passed, no matter what they rendered in service of Bethel’s betterment, it seemed the Outskirters would always be consigned to the fringes.

On that day, there were around a dozen beggars on the main road. As Immanuelle neared them, they turned to her as they always did, though none extended their bowls or cups, or even greeted her with more than a cold stare. Instead, they seemed to study her, their expressions she would describe as a mix of curiosity and contempt.

She didn’t blame them.

While on the outside she shared their features—the dark skin, the firm nose, the wide black eyes—she was not
of
them, not really. She had never known the poverty of a life beyond the Glades or walked the roads through the Outskirts, nor had she met the kin she likely had there. For all Immanuelle knew, those who lurked on the roads may well have been her blood—relatives of her father, uncles or cousins perhaps—but she didn’t claim them as such, and they in turn didn’t claim her either.

Immanuelle walked a little faster, staring down at her shoes, trying to shrug off the lingering gazes of the Outskirters as she made her way to the livestock sector. She was nearly there when she spotted the best shop of all: the peddler’s bookstall.

In comparison to the other shops, with their painted signs and elaborate displays, it wasn’t much. Its tent was small, just a sheet of burlap stretched across three wooden stakes. Beneath it were five rows of shelves, all of them taller than Immanuelle and crowded with books—real books—not like the decorative tomes and hymnals that sat above the mantel at the Moore house, untouched and unread. These were books on botany and medicine,
books of poetry and lore, atlases and histories of Bethel and the settlements beyond it, even little pamphlets that taught things like grammar and arithmetic. It was a wonder they had been approved by the Prophet’s Guard at all.

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