Read The Year of the Witching Online
Authors: Alexis Henderson
After tethering Judas to a nearby lamppost, Immanuelle drifted toward the stall. Despite knowing she was supposed to be well on her way to the livestock district, she lingered between the shelves, opening the books to smell the musk of their bindings and run her fingers along the pages. Although she had stopped her formal schooling at age twelve, as all girls in Bethel did to observe the Prophet’s Holy Protocol, Immanuelle was a strong reader. As a matter of fact, reading was one of the few things she felt she was truly good at, one of the few things she prided herself on. She sometimes thought that if she had any Gift at all, it was that. Books were to her what faith was to Martha; she never felt closer to the Father than she did in those moments under the shadow of the book tent, reading the stories of a stranger she’d never met.
The first book she selected was thick and bound in pale gray cloth. There was no title, only the word
stamped along its spine in golden ink. Immanuelle opened it and read the first few lines of a poem about a storm sweeping over the ocean. She had never seen the ocean before, or known anyone who had seen it, but as she read the verses aloud, she could hear the bellow of the waves, taste the brine of the waters, and feel the wind snatching at her curls.
“Back again, I see.” Immanuelle looked up to find the shopkeeper, Tobis, watching her. Beside him, to her surprise, stood Ezra, the Prophet’s son, who’d sat with her and Leah by the riverside the day before.
He was dressed in plain clothes, same as the farmers who’d come fresh from the fields, except for the apostle’s sacred dagger, which still hung from the chain around his neck. He was holding
two books in one hand. The first was a thick copy of the Holy Scriptures bound in brown leather; the second was slim, clothbound, and titleless. He smiled at her in greeting, and she dipped her head in response, slipping the book back into its place on the shelf. She couldn’t afford it anyway. The Moores barely had enough to put food on the table and pay tithes to the Prophet and his Church; there were no coppers to waste on frivolous things like stories and paper and poetry. Such privileges were reserved for apostles and men who had money to spare. Men like Ezra.
“Take your time,” said Tobis, strolling closer, the spiced scent of his pipe smoke wafting through the shelves. “Don’t let us trouble you.”
“You’re not troubling me at all,” Immanuelle murmured, stepping toward the street. She motioned toward Judas, who stood beneath the shadow of a lamppost, striking the cobbles with his hooves. “I was just leaving. I’m not here to shop, only to peddle.”
“Nonsense,” the shopkeeper spoke around the stem of his pipe. “There’s a book for everyone. There must be something that catches your eye.”
Immanuelle’s gaze went to Ezra—to his fine wool coat and polished boots, to the leather-bound books tucked beneath his arm, so well made she imagined the price of one would be enough to cover Abram’s medicines for weeks to come. She flushed. “I have no money.”
The shopkeeper smiled, his teeth riddled with steel and copper. “Then how about a bargain? I’ll trade you a book in exchange for the ram.”
For a split moment, she hesitated.
Some foolish part of her was willing to do it, willing to sell Judas for a few scraps of poetry. But then she thought of Honor with wads of cloth packed into the toes of her shoes to fill the holes and stop the wet from seeping through, of Glory in her
hand-me-down dress, hanging off her shoulders like an old grain sack. She thought of Abram and his barking cough, thought of all the medicines he’d need to cure it. She swallowed, then shook her head. “I can’t.”
“What about that?” The shopkeeper jabbed his thumb toward her mother’s necklace—the polished river stone strung on a leather cord. It was a crude token, nothing like the pearls and jewels that some of the Bethelan girls wore, but it was one of the only things Immanuelle had inherited from her and she treasured it more than anything. “That stone sits prettily on your chest.”
Immanuelle raised a hand to it on impulse. “I—”
“She said no,” Ezra cut in harshly, surprising her. “She doesn’t want the book. Leave her be.”
The shopkeeper had the good sense to mind him. He bobbed his head like a hen as he backed away. “As you say, sir, as you say.”
Ezra watched the peddler return to his books, mouth set, eyes narrowed. Something in his gaze reminded Immanuelle of the way he’d looked at her on the Sabbath, the way he’d faltered, as if he’d seen something in her he hadn’t meant to. Now he turned back to her. “You read?”
Immanuelle flushed despite herself, more than a little proud he’d taken notice. So many of her peers—Leah and Judith and the others—could scarcely read at all, knowing no more than their own names and a few of the Scripture’s most important verses. If it hadn’t been for Abram’s insistence that Immanuelle learn to read and manage the Moore farm in his stead, she might have ended up like most other girls she knew, barely able to sign her own name, not knowing a book of stories from a collection of poetry. “I read well enough.”
Ezra raised an eyebrow. “And you’re here alone? You don’t have a chaperone?”
“I don’t need a chaperone,” she said, knowing it was a bending of
Protocol at best and a breach at worst, but she didn’t take Ezra for a snitch. She freed Judas from the lamppost and led him into the street. “I know the roads well enough to make the trip on my own.”
To her surprise, Ezra followed at her side, the crowds parting as he walked. “That’s a long way to travel alone. The Moore land is what? Nine miles away?”
“Ten.” Immanuelle was surprised he knew their land at all. Most didn’t. “And it’s no trouble at all. I leave after sunup and I’m here before noon.”
“And you don’t mind?” he asked.
Immanuelle shook her head, her grasp tightening on the lead rope as they crossed into the livestock sector. Even if she did, it wouldn’t matter. Her complaints and annoyances wouldn’t put food in her belly; they wouldn’t pay tithes or thatch the roof or cover the debts that were due in the fall. Only the wealthy had the luxury of minding things; the rest simply ducked their heads, bit their tongues, and did what needed to be done. Ezra obviously fell into the former category, and she the latter.
In truth, it was a surprise to find him in the market at all. As the Prophet’s successor, she imagined he’d have more important responsibilities than buying and bartering. Tasks like that were far beneath him. And yet, there he was, walking with her as if he was taking a Sabbath stroll, carrying books like the Prophet had sent him out on a servant’s errand.
Ezra caught her staring and extended one of his books, the bigger of the two, with the words
The Holy Scriptures
embossed in gold across the cover. “Here. Have a look.”
Immanuelle shook her head, tugging Judas away from a pen of chickens. “We have our own copy of the Scriptures at home.”
Ezra cracked a half smile and glanced over his shoulder, slipping Judas’ lead rope from her hand. “These aren’t scriptures.”
Immanuelle took the book gingerly. On the outside, it looked just like the Scriptures, but when she flipped it open, there were no verses or psalms, but rather pictures, sketches and pressed ink prints of strange animals and looming trees, mountains, birds, and insects the likes of which she had never seen before. A few of the pages were etched with drawings of great kingdoms and temples, heathen cities in realms far beyond Bethel’s gate.
Just then, a loud jeering sounded above the din of the marketplace. Immanuelle raised her eyes to a break in the crowds and caught a glimpse of the lashing stocks. There, bound and muzzled and swaying on her feet, was a young blond woman, the same one whom Judith and her friend had gossiped about on the Sabbath—the poor girl who’d lured a local farmer into sin with seduction and harlotry.
At the sight of her, Immanuelle snapped Ezra’s book shut so fast and so hard, she almost dropped it in the muck of the street. She shoved it to his chest. “Take it back. Please.”
Ezra rolled his eyes, handing her Judas’ lead rope. “And here I thought a girl with the gall to dance with devils wouldn’t be frightened by such things.”
“I’m not frightened,” she lied, ears ringing with the shouts of the crowd. “But that book, it’s—”
“An encyclopedia,” he said. “A book of knowledge.”
Immanuelle knew full well there was only one book of knowledge, and it had no pictures. “It’s forbidden. A sin.”
Ezra studied her silently for a moment; then his gaze tracked across the market to the girl in the stocks, weeping and struggling against her chains. “Isn’t it strange how reading a book is a sin, but locking a girl in the stocks and leaving her to the dogs is another day of the Good Father’s work?”
Immanuelle stared at him, startled. “What?” She would have
never thought the Prophet’s own son—and the heir to the Church, no less—would say such a thing, even if it was true.
Ezra flashed that lopsided grin of his, but his gaze was dark. “I’ll see you on the Sabbath,” he said, and then, without so much as a nod, he took his leave.
The dead walk among the living. This is the first truth, and the most important.
IMMANUELLE DID NOT
sell the yearling that day. She bargained, she haggled, she called to the passing townsfolk and did all she could to be rid of the ram, but no one wanted him. There would be no new dress for Glory, no shoes for Honor or tithes to pay the Prophet.
The main road was almost empty when Immanuelle abandoned her market post and began the long journey back to the Glades. As she walked, her thoughts went to that harlot in the stocks. The memory of the girl—shackled and weak-kneed and so young, mumbling pleas through her muzzle—haunted her, even as she tried to force it from her mind and focus on her journey home.
She walked on. The sun sank low to the horizon and a black storm swept across the plains. Rain slashed down from the clouds, and the wind howled about her like something alive.
Immanuelle picked up her pace, pulling the strap of her knapsack higher and tugging Judas along. He fought her at every step, black hooves tripping over the cobblestones, eyes rolling. She tried to talk him down above the thunder, but he wouldn’t heed her.
As they crossed from the main road to the dirt path that cut across the Glades, a bolt of lightning cleaved the clouds. Judas reared with such force that Immanuelle lost her footing and slipped on the rain-slick cobbles. A bone-bruising bolt of pain split between her ribs and kicked the air from her lungs. She gasped, squatting in the muck as Judas shook his head about wildly.
“Easy,” she wheezed, struggling to get back on her feet. “Easy there.”
The ram reared again, hooves cutting deep into the soil as he landed on the other side of the road. He turned to look Immanuelle in the eye; then he lowered his head and charged her.
Immanuelle leaped right. Judas veered left, the point of his horn clipping the edge of her mouth, splitting her bottom lip. She hit the ground on her knees again, scraping them raw.
The enraged ram gave another mighty pull, and the lead rope snapped in two. Freed, Judas bucked once more, then tore toward the forest, disappearing into the trees.
Immanuelle snatched a ragged breath and screamed:
She pushed to her feet, staggering to the curb, where half the road diverged toward the distant woodland. The path through the forest was leagues shorter than the long way around, and if Immanuelle took it she was certain she would make it home sooner.
But Martha’s warning trailed through her mind:
There is evil in the woods.
But then she thought of the coming tithes and their leaking roof and the holes in Glory’s shoes. She thought of bad harvests, gruel suppers, and waning winter stores. She thought of everything they needed, and everything they lacked, and she took a step toward the tree line. Then another.
At the forest’s border, it was quieter, the wind dying down. Immanuelle called for Judas once again, hands cupped around her mouth, staring into the shadows between the trees. But there was
nothing, just the whisper of the wind threading through the pines and seething through the high grass.
Come hither, come hither,
it seemed to say.
Immanuelle felt something stir in the pit of her belly. She felt her heart quicken, beating as fast as a hummingbird’s wings. She glanced back toward the road, toward town. The sun was still partially obscured by storm clouds, but by the way it sat in the sky she knew she had close to an hour before it set fully. An hour to search for Judas, then. An hour to right her wrongs.
She could do it, if she hurried. She knew she could fix her mistake yet, with no one—not even Martha—the wiser.
Immanuelle took one halting step into the trees, and then another, her legs suddenly leaden, her feet numb in her boots.
The wind flowed through the tree branches, beckoning her onward:
Come hither. Come hither.
All at once, she was running, breaking between the elms and oak trees. The air smelled of rain and sap, loam and the sweet decay of forest rot. Thunder sounded and the wind picked up again. Brambles snagged her dress and caught on the straps of her knapsack as she tore through the woodland.
she shrieked, wading through the underbrush, tripping over tree roots and knots of tangled bramble. On and on she went, running through the forest as fast as her legs would carry her.
But the ram was gone.
And the sun was setting.
And Immanuelle soon realized she was lost.
Squinting through the rain, she turned, trying to retrace her footsteps. But the Darkwood seemed to shift as she moved, and she couldn’t find the path again. She was cold and alone and hungry. Her knees were weak and her knapsack felt heavy, as though it was weighted with stones. Ruefully she realized Martha had
been right to warn her against the woods, and she had been foolish to disobey.
Gazing up to the treetops, Immanuelle saw that the last of the storm clouds were thinning. The wind still rattled the branches, but the pelting rain had died down to a drizzle, and the dull glow of the setting sun filtered through the pines. She followed its light, breaking west, running as fast as her numb feet would carry her. But the shadows were faster still, and night fell quick around her.
As the last rays of sunlight died into darkness, Immanuelle’s knees buckled beneath her. She staggered, collapsing into a muddy nook between an oak tree’s roots. There, cowering in the muck, she drew her knees to her chest and tried to catch her breath. As the wind howled through the trees, she clutched her mother’s pendant for good luck.
But she didn’t pray. She didn’t have the gall to do that.
Overhead, the last of the storm died away, leaving only a scattering of stars and a gibbous moon that hung, low-slung, in the evening sky. As Immanuelle peered up into the distant heavens, a calm settled over her like the soft folds of a blanket, and she began to feel less alone, less afraid. There was something gentle about the way the moonlight licked the leaves and wind moved through the treetops. It was as though the Darkwood was singing her a lullaby, one she’d heard before:
Come hither, Immanuelle. Come hither.
As the wind’s voice seeped through the trees, the shadows blurred before her eyes, moonlight and darkness smearing together like paint. A kind of alertness came over her, and she tasted metal at the back of her throat. But somehow, she felt no fear. It had been stripped from her, as though she’d become a little less than whole, a half a girl existing between what is and isn’t.
She wasn’t just Immanuelle now. She was more. And she was less.
She was in the Darkwood. And the Darkwood was in her too.
Bracing a hand against the trunk of the oak tree, she rose, knees still weak beneath her, feet still numb. The whisper on the wind grew louder, and she stumbled blindly through the darkness after it, hoping it might lead her to the forest’s edge.
Gradually, the trees thinned, and for a moment, Immanuelle thought she’d found its end. But her hope faded as she crossed into a small clearing, a circle cut into the thick of the forest all aglow with the light of the moon. Around its perimeter grew a wide fairy ring of morel mushrooms, the biggest Immanuelle had ever seen.
And at the very center of that ring, two women lay twined and naked, their bare legs tangled together, lips split apart. The bigger of the two, a black-haired woman with the build of a spider, lay on top of the other, her spine contorted, shoulders tensed so tightly Immanuelle could see the corded muscles strain and spasm beneath her skin, which was as thin and gray as a corpse’s. The second woman writhed under her lover, moving her mouth to her neck.
Immanuelle’s knapsack slipped off her shoulder and struck the ground.
The women stopped, seized, and detangled themselves from each other, rising from the ground. One of them clawed for something in the shadows of the high grass, a dark object Immanuelle couldn’t see from where she stood. They turned to face her in unison.
Standing upright, the women were a foot taller than she. Both wore the same slack expression: mouths agape, lips red and slick, like the flaps of an open wound. Cut between their eyebrows was
what appeared to be a bride’s seal, only the star in the middle was slightly different, less elaborate, perhaps. Though the women stood motionless, their bones seemed to shift and move, as though their skeletons were fighting to be free of them. Their eyes were dead white, the color of sun-bleached bone. No pupils, no irises, and yet, somehow, their gazes were fixed on Immanuelle.