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Authors: Alexis Henderson

The Year of the Witching

BOOK: The Year of the Witching
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Published by Berkley

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Copyright © 2020 by Alexis Henderson

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L
IBRARY OF
C
ONGRESS
C
ATALOGI
NG-IN-
P
UBLICATION
D
A
TA

Names: Henderson, Alexis, author.

Title: The year of the witching / Alexis Henderson.

Description: First edition. | New York : Ace, 2020.

Identifiers: LCCN 2019050966 (print) | LCCN 2019050967 (ebook) | ISBN 9780593099605 (hardcover) | ISBN 9780593099629 (ebook)

Subjects: GSAFD: Fantasy fiction. | Occult fiction.

Classification: LCC PS3608.E52548 Y43 2020 (print) | LCC PS3608.E52548 (ebook) | DDC 813/.6—dc23

LC record available at
https://lccn.loc.gov/2019050966

LC ebook record available at
https://lccn.loc.gov/2019050967

Jacket photograph of woman by Larry Rostant

Jacket design by Katie Anderson

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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C
ONTENTS

Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

The Beast

Blood

Blight

Darkness

Slaughter

Acknowledgments

About the Author

For my mom, to whom I owe
everything.

T
HE
B
EAST

SHE WAS BORN
breech, in the deep of night. The midwife, Martha, had to seize her by the ankles and drag her from the womb. She slipped out easy, dropped limp into Martha’s arms, and lay still as stone.

The midwife’s daughter gave a low groan that bubbled up from her belly. She grasped at the folds of her nightdress, its hem soaked black with blood, but she made no move to reach for her child. Instead, she turned her head, cheek pressed to the tabletop, and stared across the kitchen to the window above the sink, gazing into the woods.

“Her name,” she demanded, eyes sharp with moonlight. “Give me her name.”

The midwife took the babe, cut her cord, and swaddled her in a scrap of burlap. The child was cold against her breast, and she would have thought her dead if it weren’t for the name that rattled at the back of her throat, its flavor bitter as bile, and yet sweet as wine. The taste of the name the Father had chosen for her. But she didn’t want to say it—not out loud.

With the last of her strength, the girl twisted to face her. “The name. I want her name.”

“Immanuelle,” she finally bit it out like a curse. “She will be called Immanuelle.”

At that the girl on the table smiled, blue lips stretching taut. Then she laughed, an ugly, gargling sound that echoed through the kitchen, spilling out to the parlor, where the rest of the family sat waiting, listening.

“A curse,” she whispered, still smiling to herself. “A little curse, just as she said. Just as she told me.”

The midwife clutched the child close, locking her fingers to still their shaking. She gazed down at her daughter, lying limp on the table, a dark pool of blood between her thighs. “Just as who told you?”

“The woman in the woods,” the dying girl whispered, barely breathing. “The witch. The Beast.”

P
ART
I

Blood

C
HAPTER
O
NE

From the light came the Father. From the darkness, the Mother. That is both the beginning and the end.

—T
HE
H
OLY
S
CRIPTURES

IMMANUELLE MOORE KNELT
at the foot of the altar, palms pressed together in prayer, mouth open. Above her, the Prophet loomed in robes of black velvet, his head shaved bristly, his bloodied hands outstretched.

She peered up at him—tracing the path of the long, jagged scar that carved down the side of his neck—and thought of her mother.

In a fluid motion, the Prophet turned from her, robes rustling as he faced the altar, where a lamb lay gutted. He put a hand to its head, then slipped his fingers deep into the wound. As he turned to face Immanuelle again, blood trickled down his wrist and disappeared into the shadows of his sleeve, a few of the droplets falling to the stained floorboards at his feet. He painted her with the blood, his fingers warm and firm as they trailed from the dip of her upper lip down to her chin. He lingered for a moment, as if to catch his breath, and when he spoke his voice was ragged. “Blood of the flock.”

Immanuelle licked it away, tasting brine and iron as she pressed to her feet. “For the glory of the Father.”

On her way back to her pew, she was careful not to spare a
glance at the lamb. An offering from her grandfather’s flock, she’d brought it as a tribute the night before, when the cathedral was empty and dark. She had not witnessed the slaughter; she’d excused herself and retreated outside long before the apostles raised their blades. But she’d heard it, the prayers and murmurs drowned out by the cries of the lamb, like those of a newborn baby.

Immanuelle watched as the rest of her family moved through the procession, each of them receiving the blood in turn. Her sister Glory went first, dipping to her knees and obliging the Prophet with a smile. Glory’s mother Anna, the younger of the two Moore wives, took the blessing in a hurry, herding her other daughter, Honor, who licked the blood off her lips like it was honey. Lastly, Martha, the first wife and Immanuelle’s grandmother, accepted the Prophet’s blessing with her arms raised, fingers shaking, her body seized by the power of the Father’s light.

Immanuelle wished she could feel the way her grandmother did, but sitting there in the pew, all she felt was the residual warmth of the lamb’s blood on her lips and the incessant drone of her heartbeat. No angels roosted at her shoulders. No spirit or god stirred in her.

When the last of the congregation was seated, the Prophet raised his arms to the rafters and began to pray. “Father, we come to Thee as servants and followers eager to do Thy work.”

Immanuelle quickly bowed her head and squeezed her eyes shut.

“There may be those among us who are distant from the faith of our ancestors, numb to the Father’s touch and deaf to His voice. On their behalves, I pray for His mercy. I ask that they find solace not in the Mother’s darkness but in the light of the Father.”

At that, Immanuelle cracked one eye open, and for a moment, she could have sworn the Prophet’s gaze was on her. His eyes were wide open at the height of his prayer, staring at her in the
gaps between bowed heads and shaking shoulders. Their eyes met, and his flicked away. “May the Father’s kingdom reign.”

The Prophet’s flock spoke as one:
“Now and forevermore.”

IMMANUELLE LAY BY
the river’s edge with her friend, Leah, shoulder to shoulder, both of them drunk off the warmth of the midday sun. Yards away, the rest of the congregation gathered in fellowship. For most, the shadow of the Sabbath slaughter had already faded to a distant memory. All was peaceful and the congregation was content to abide in that.

At Immanuelle’s side, Leah shifted onto her back, peering into the thick banks of the clouds that loomed overhead. She was a vision, dressed in sky-blue chiffon, her skirts billowing gently with the breeze. “It’s a good day,” she said, smiling as the wind snatched her hair.

In the Scriptures and the stories, in the stained-glass windows of the cathedral or the paintings that hung from its stone walls, the angels always looked like Leah: golden-haired and blue-eyed, dressed in fine silks and satins, with full cheeks and skin as pale as river pearls.

As for the girls like Immanuelle—the ones from the Outskirts, with dark skin and raven-black curls, cheekbones as keen as cut stone—well, the Scriptures never mentioned them at all. There were no statues or paintings rendered in their likeness, no poems or stories penned in their honor. They went unmentioned, unseen.

Immanuelle tried to push these thoughts from her mind. She didn’t want to be jealous of her friend. If there was anyone in the world who deserved to be loved and admired, it was Leah. Leah with her patience and virtue. Leah, who, when all the other children at school had scorned Immanuelle as a child of sin, marched
across the courtyard, took her firmly by the hand, and wiped her tears away with her sleeve.

Leah, her friend. The only one she had.

And Leah was right: It
was
a good day. It would have been nearly a perfect day, if not for the fact that it was one of the last of its kind, one of the last Sabbaths they would have together.

For years, every Sabbath, the two of them had met after the service ended. In the winter months, they’d huddle together in an empty pew at the back of the cathedral and gossip to pass the time. But in the warm seasons, Leah would bring a big picnic basket stuffed with pastries from her family’s bakery in the village. On good days, there’d be an assortment of biscuits and sweet breads, scones and cookies, and on the very best days, a bit of honeycomb or jam to go with them. Together, they’d find a spot by the stream and eat and gossip and giggle until their families called them home. Such had been their custom, as though on those long afternoons in the meadow, the world began and ended there at the riverside. But, like most good things Immanuelle knew, their custom was not made to last. In two weeks’ time, Leah was to marry the Prophet. On that day, once she was cut, she would no longer be Immanuelle’s companion, but his.

“I’ll miss days like this,” said Leah, breaking the silence. “I’ll miss the sweets and the Sabbath and being here with you.”

Immanuelle shrugged, plucking at blades of grass. Her gaze followed the path of the river down the sloping plains and through the reeds, until it spilled into the distant forest and disappeared, devoured by the shadows. There was something about the way the water trickled through the trees that made her want to get up and follow it. “Good things end.”

“Nothing’s ending,” Leah corrected her. “Everything’s just beginning. We’re growing up.”

“Growing up?” Immanuelle scoffed. “I haven’t even bled yet.”

It was true. She was nearly seventeen years old and she’d never once had her flow. All of the other girls her age had bled years ago, but not Immanuelle. Never Immanuelle. Martha had all but declared her barren months ago. She was not to bleed or be a wife or bear children. She would remain as she was now, and everyone else would grow up, pass her by, and leave her behind, as Leah would in a few short weeks. It was only a matter of time.

“You’ll bleed one day,” said Leah firmly, as though by declaring it she could make it so. “Just give it time. The sickness will pass.”

“It’s not sickness,” said Immanuelle, tasting the tang of lamb’s blood on her lips. “It’s sin.”

What sin specifically, Immanuelle couldn’t be certain. She had wandered astray too many times—reading in secret, in breach of Holy Protocol, or forgetting to say her evening prayers and falling asleep unblessed. Maybe she had spent too many mornings daydreaming in the pastures when she should have been herding her sheep. Or perhaps she hadn’t demonstrated a spirit of gratitude when being served a bowl of cold dinner gruel. But Immanuelle knew this much: She had far too many sins to count. It was no wonder she hadn’t received the Father’s blood blessing.

If Leah was aware of Immanuelle’s many transgressions, she made no mention of them. Instead, she waved her off with a flourish of the hand. “Sins can be forgiven. When the Good Father sees fit, you will bleed. And after you bleed, a man will take you up, then you will be his and he will be yours, and everything will be as it should be.”

To this, Immanuelle said nothing. She narrowed her eyes against the sun and stared across the field to where the Prophet stood among his wives, offering his blessings and counsel to the gathered faithful. All his wives wore identical dull yellow dresses, the color of
daffodil petals, and they all bore the holy seal, an eight-pointed star cut between their eyebrows that all the women of Bethel were marked with on their wedding day.

“I’d rather tend to my sheep,” said Immanuelle.

“And what about when you’re old?” Leah demanded. “What then?”

“Then I’ll be an old shepherdess,” Immanuelle declared. “I’ll be an old sheep hag.”

Leah laughed, a loud, pretty sound that drew gazes. She had a way of doing that. “And what if a man offers his hand?”

Immanuelle smirked. “No good man with any good sense would want anything to do with me.”

“Rubbish.”

Immanuelle’s gaze shifted over to a group of young men and women about her age, maybe a little older. She watched as they laughed and flirted, making spectacles of themselves. The boys puffed out their chests, while the girls played in the shallows of the creek, hiking their skirts high above their knees in the streaming current, careful to avoid drifting too far for fear of the devils that lurked in the depths of the water.

“You know I’ll still come visit you,” said Leah, as though sensing Immanuelle’s fears. “You’ll see me on the Sabbath, and after my confinement I’ll come to you in the pasture, every week if I can.”

Immanuelle turned her attention to the food in front of them. She picked up a hunk of bread from the picnic basket and slathered it with fresh-churned butter and a bloody smear of raspberry marmalade. She took a big bite, speaking thickly through the mouthful. “The Holy Grounds are a long way from the Glades.”

“I’ll find a way.”

“It won’t be the same,” said Immanuelle, with a petulant edge to her voice that made her hate herself.

Leah ducked her head, looking hurt. She twisted the ring on
her right hand with her thumb, a nervous tic she’d adopted in the days following her engagement. It was a pretty thing, a gold band set with a small river pearl, likely some heirloom passed down from the wives of prophets past.

“It’ll be enough,” said Leah hollowly. Then, more firmly, as though she was trying to convince herself: “It will have to be enough. Even if I’m forced to ride the roads on the Prophet’s own horse, I’ll find a way to see you. I won’t let things change. I swear.”

Immanuelle wanted to believe her, but she was too good at spotting lies, and she could tell there was some falsity in Leah’s voice. Still, she made no mention of it. No good would come of it anyway: Leah was bound to the Prophet, and had been since the day he first laid eyes on her two summers prior. The ring she wore was merely a placeholder, a promise wrought in gold. In due time, that promise would take the form of the seed he’d plant in her. Leah would birth a child, and the Prophet would plant his seed again, and again, as he did with all his wives while they were still young enough to bear its fruit.

“Leah!”

Immanuelle looked up to see that the group that had been playing in the river shallows was now drawing near, waving as they approached. There were four of them. Two girls, a pretty blonde Immanuelle knew only in passing from classes at the schoolhouse, and Judith Chambers, the Prophet’s newest bride. Then there were the boys. Peter, a hulking farmhand as thick-shouldered as an ox, and about as intelligent, the son of the first apostle. Next to him, with eyes narrowed against the sun, was Ezra, the Prophet’s son and successor.

Ezra was tall and dark-haired, with ink-black eyes. He was handsome too, almost wickedly so, drawing the stares of even the most pious wives and daughters. Although he was scarcely more than nineteen, he wore one of the twelve golden apostle’s daggers
on a chain around his neck, an honor that most men of Bethel, despite their best efforts, went a lifetime without achieving.

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