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Authors: Alexis Henderson

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BOOK: The Year of the Witching
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“You can’t promise my safety. There’s no way for us to redeem ourselves out of reality. Bethel won’t change, Ezra. The pyres will keep burning no matter what we do; I know that now. More girls will die. More apostles will rise. More trials will be held—”

Ezra shook his head. “A prophet can’t be put on trial. And neither could you, if you bear my name.”

It took her a moment to fully comprehend the statement. He’d thrown the offer at her feet so casually, as if he was merely inviting her for an afternoon stroll. “What are you trying to say?”

“You could be First Bride, with all of the allowances that go with the title. You could take up Leah’s daughter, raise her in the Haven the way you want. You’d be safe.”

Any other girl in Bethel would have wept with joy at the offer, would have lunged at the chance to stand by Ezra’s side as his wife and life partner. It was nothing less than a dream. Or at least it should have been. But all Immanuelle could think about was her mother. That life—a life bound to the Prophet, to the Church and the Haven—was what had forced her to flee into the Darkwood in the first place.

“So, you’d have me cut?” Immanuelle asked, barely breathing. “You’d have me stretched across the cathedral altar like a lamb for the gutting? Do you expect me to sit there in that prison of a keep, meek and quiet and minding my tongue? And do what? Pray? Mourn? Pity myself to pass the time, while the plagues rage and ravage everything in their path?”

“We could build another house,” said Ezra. “Someplace safe, away from the Darkwood. We’d have the means.”

“We’ll be lucky if we have ashes and cinders by the end of these plagues. Or have you forgotten what you’ve seen already? The blood? The blight? Each curse is worse than the last. This is no time for dreams.”

“And is that dream such a terrible fate? I’m telling you I can protect you, here in Bethel, if you’ll let me. I swear it, on my life.”

Immanuelle considered it for a moment, imagined the future she’d have if she chose to stand at Ezra’s side. Hers would be a life of finery—filled with good food and smart dresses and the sort of
genteel delights she’d dreamed of as a girl. She’d be the wife of a prophet, his
first
wife. She would never be ridiculed or scorned. Never be made to stand alone.

But the longer she dwelled on the thought, the more she realized the folly of it. If she stayed, there would be no goodness or mercy, no Bethel at all. The plagues would destroy everything.

“I don’t want your protection,” said Immanuelle, and she caught him by the hand. It was then that she realized they had matching scars—his on his right hand, hers on her left—both of the marks cutting through their lifelines. “I want you to help me fix this before the plagues destroy everything. There’s still time if you can just get me through the gate.”

Ezra gazed down at his hand in hers. He fit his fingers into the spaces between her own.

“Please, Ezra, while there’s still time. Forge me a warrant with your seal. Get me through the Hallowed Gate. Bethel’s fate depends on it.”

She waited for him to refuse her, braced herself for the blow. But then, with a grim nod: “For you, and you only, I’ll do it.”

C
HAPTER
T
WENTY
-
EIGHT

I am with child. I know they would take her from me, as they did him. But I will not let them. I would die before I’d do that.

—M
IRIAM
M
OORE

IMMANUELLE SAT AT
the edge of Honor’s bed, gazing out the window to the black stretch of the Darkwood. Three days had passed since Leah’s body had burned on the purging pyre. Three days since Ezra had agreed to secure the warrant she’d need to get her through the Hallowed Gate.

In that time, Immanuelle had assembled the provisions she’d need for her journey and prepared to say her goodbyes. She’d resolved herself to going and she was ready for it. She didn’t know what the wilds held, or what faced her beyond the gate, but she knew she would find her way.

Immanuelle ran her fingers through Honor’s hair, and her bruised eyes split open. She’d awoken for the first time since the sickness struck just a few days prior, though she hadn’t said more than two words since.

Though Glory now limped down the halls and joined the family for supper on her better days, Honor was still confined to her bed. Sometimes she shook; other times she wept openly, as if the sickness had taken something from her and she was grieving it.

That night, Immanuelle ate dinner with the Moores for a final time. She noticed every detail, wanting to remember everything. The way Abram toked on his pipe between bites. The dimples in Anna’s cheeks when she smiled up at Glory. The gray that threaded through Martha’s hair, as pale as spun silver.

After the meal was over and the dishes washed, Immanuelle dismissed herself to her bedroom, where she packed the last of the items she’d need on her journey. She padded the bottom of her knapsack with blankets, grateful for the warmth of the summer that would spare her for a time. In addition to the blankets, she packed a bag of coppers and food—dried fruit, jerky, pale squares of hardtack. Once Immanuelle was finished packing, she threw her cloak over her shoulders and crept downstairs, easing her way through the parlor and into the kitchen.

“You’re up late.”

Immanuelle stopped dead at the sound of Martha’s voice. Her grandmother stood in front of the window, hands buried in the pockets of her skirt, head tipped over her shoulder, cheeks moon bathed. She turned to face Immanuelle, taking in her cloak and boots, the knapsack slung over her shoulder. She nodded toward the clock on the wall above the sink.

“It’s almost the witching hour,” said Martha, and a bitter smile touched her lips. “Perhaps that’s what the Prophet should have named this wretched year. It’s more fitting, don’t you think? The Year of the Witching.”

Immanuelle’s hand tightened around the strap of her knapsack. “I want you to know I’m leaving. Before the next plague comes.”

The elder woman looked less angry than tired. Her gaze shifted to the window again. “Go back to bed, Immanuelle.”

“No.”

At that, Martha turned back to face her. Immanuelle braced
for a scolding or even a slap to the cheek, but she simply asked, “What’s in your bag?”

Immanuelle tilted her chin, trying to look firm when all she felt was afraid. “Provisions for the road.”

Her grandmother drifted closer, her bare feet scuffing across the floorboards as she approached. “Let me see.”

Immanuelle took a step back. “No.”

Martha didn’t ask again. She lashed out, snatching the bag off Immanuelle’s shoulder. For a moment they tussled, each of them holding on to a strap, but Martha prevailed, ripping the bag from Immanuelle’s grasp so hard she snapped forward and fell into the cabinets.

She rifled through its contents for a few moments in silence, her gray brows knit into a frown. She removed the book of poetry first, gave the first page a passing glance—spotting the holy seal in the corner—then snapped it shut again. Then she withdrew Miriam’s journal, and Immanuelle saw the recognition flicker through her eyes like a candle lit. As Martha read her daughter’s words—studied her drawings—her eyes narrowed, then filled with tears. “How did you come by these books? Answer me. Now.”

“The books were gifts,” said Immanuelle, picking every word with care. “Both of them belong to me, and I would like them back, if you would be so kind.”

“Kind? You ask me to be kind when you keep secrets like this?” Martha demanded, shaking Miriam’s journal so violently a few pages ripped free of the binding and fluttered to the floor. “This is holy treason. Men have died for less.”

Immanuelle didn’t deny it. It would make no difference anyway. She simply held out her hand. “My bag, please.”

Martha turned, shoved the journal back into the knapsack, and hurled it against the door so hard it was a wonder that every
Moore in the house didn’t wake at the sound. Coins and crumbs scattered across the floor. A few papers flew.

When Martha spoke again, it was in a harsh whisper. “I dragged you from my daughter’s womb. I called your name down from the heavens and pinned it to you. I would have nursed you at my own breast if I could have. And this is how you repay me? With lies and deceit? With witch-work and treachery? By abandoning your family in the dead of night, skulking out of the house like a thief, without so much as a farewell? I didn’t raise you to repeat the sins of your mother, or to die on the pyre like your father.”

The words struck Immanuelle like a slap, but she said nothing, did nothing except stoop to collect the strewn coins and papers. After she gathered the last of her belongings, she rose to her feet and faced Martha. “I know that I’m not the granddaughter you wanted or the girl you raised me to be. If I were to list my sins, we’d be up half the night, and I’m sorry for that. If I could have been better for you, I would have. But believe me when I say I can’t be what you want me to be. I am leaving now to keep people safe.”

“There is no safety in sin, Immanuelle. Only despair.”

A tear slipped down Immanuelle’s cheek, then another. She didn’t bother wiping them away. “I know.”

“Your mother once said similar things. The day I found her in the arms of that wretched farm boy in the woods, she said she knew, that she understood. But she didn’t. You see what became of her, because of her sin and selfishness.”

“I’m not my mother. I have never been my mother.”

“No, but you are her daughter. You’re more like her than you are anyone else, despite all my prayers and efforts, everything I did to keep you from sharing her fate. I see that now. I was foolish to think it could be any other way.”

Immanuelle took a half step toward her. “Martha—”

“No.” The woman raised a hand, flinching away as if she feared Immanuelle would lash out and strike her. “You’ve made your choice. But know that if you go tonight, there is no returning. Once you step out that door into the darkness, it’s done. No coming home again.”

Immanuelle wiped her nose on her sleeve, trying to collect herself. She could barely see Martha through her tears. “I didn’t mean to disappoint you.” Her voice broke on the words. “I wanted more than anything to make you proud, but I know now that I wasn’t meant to do that, and I am sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Martha said nothing, but as Immanuelle turned toward the door a sob broke from the woman’s lips, and she clasped a hand to her mouth in a vain attempt to muffle it.

In that moment—watching Martha weep—Immanuelle almost broke. She wanted to drop her knapsack right there, repent of her sins, gut a ram on the coming Sabbath to atone. Perhaps it would be enough. Perhaps the plagues would pass and she could begin again, go back to the life she’d led before.

Maybe it wasn’t too late.

But then she thought of her nightmare—the church slaughter, corpses strewn across the aisles and slumped in the pews, her loved ones among the dead. If she stayed, she’d forfeit their lives, and the lives of countless others.

She couldn’t do that, not for a dream that had died the day Miriam carved her name into the walls of that cabin.

And so, without another word, Immanuelle turned her back on Martha—on everything she had ever known—opened the door, and disappeared into the night.

C
HAPTER
T
WENTY
-
NINE

With darkness comes sin.

—F
ROM
T
HE
W
RITINGS OF THE
P
ROPHET
E
NECH

IMMANUELLE FLED ACROSS
the plains, running through the night, finding her way through the Glades by the light of the purging pyres. She and Ezra had agreed to meet at the Haven’s gate, halfway to the village proper, along the main road. She pressed a hand to her side as she ran, gasping for every breath, her lungs burning from the pyre smoke. But she kept on, sprinting through the pain, through the black that seemed to thicken with every stride.

It took Immanuelle less than an hour to reach the Haven’s gate. Ezra was waiting for her beside his wagon, which was hitched to a dark steed and loaded with supplies.

“I only needed the warrant,” said Immanuelle, stunned by his generosity. “You didn’t have to provide all of this.”

“Of course I did. Getting you through the gate won’t mean much if you don’t have the supplies you need to survive the wilds beyond it. Now, come along, we should be on our way before the Prophet’s Guard patrols. As it stands, we both have warrants to get through the gate, but if my father discovers our plans to escape and revokes them, we’ll be in more trouble than enough.”

Immanuelle paused, noticing for the first time that Ezra wore a pack like hers on his back. “Wait,
we
?”

He nodded. “I forged warrants for both of us. The wilds are too dangerous to traverse alone.” He patted his horse on the neck, and it gave a gruff whinny. “I’ll get you as far as you need to go.”

“But you’re going to be the Prophet someday. This is your home, your flock—”

“Which is why I need to see that you make it to your grandmother. As the Prophet’s heir I have as much of a responsibility to end this as you do. From now on, what we do, we do together.”

“You’ve done more than enough already. You don’t have to leave everything behind.”

Ezra set his jaw. “Weeks ago, I made a promise to help you protect those that couldn’t protect themselves. So I’m going with you to find a way to end these plagues. Whether you like it or not.”

And so, the two of them started down the long road to the village. Ezra urged his horse onward, and Immanuelle noticed his hands were so tight around the reins, his knuckles were bone white. Immanuelle sat by him, dressed in a dark wool cloak that Ezra had loaned her, the hood drawn low over her brow to hide her face from those they passed in the night.

They were halfway to the village when the cathedral bell tolled.

Immanuelle turned in her seat, straining to see through the darkness. “Did you hear that?”

Ezra nodded, reaching into the back of the wagon to retrieve something.

“Do you think that’s for us?” Immanuelle asked. “Do you think they’re looking?”

“If they are,” said Ezra, turning to face the road again, now with his rifle in hand, “they’ll regret it.”

The sound of the bells grew louder, the tolls ringing in time to Immanuelle’s racing heart. “Ezra. You can’t be serious. We can’t—”

Ezra snapped the reins, rousing the horse into a full gallop. He yelled above the thunder of the pounding hooves. “I promised you I’d get you through the gate, and I mean to keep that promise.”

The woods blurred alongside them, shadows smearing as the horse picked up speed. Ezra peered over his shoulder and swore. “Damn it.”

Immanuelle turned, following the path of his gaze to two distant lights that bobbed in the black behind them.

Riders. The Prophet’s Guard.

The truth struck her:
Martha.

She’d seen Immanuelle leave, and there was a Guard post in the Outskirts just ten minutes down the road by horseback. She must have gone to them, must have summoned the Prophet’s Guard to drag her back. Martha had betrayed her, and now that the Church knew what Immanuelle had done, the Guard would hunt her down to the ends of the earth to punish her for it. There would be no mercy.

“I hope you said your prayers,” said Ezra, yelling above the wind. “Because we’ll both have sins to atone for by the time the night’s through. Here.” He slipped the reins into her hands, and Immanuelle had to brace her feet against the bottom of the wagon just to avoid being ripped off the bench. Ezra climbed into the back of the wagon, rifle in hand. “Hold the reins steady, but keep the horse running. Don’t let him slow.”

“What are you doing?” Immanuelle asked. The reins chafed her palms so badly she feared they’d bleed. In the dark behind them, the lights burned brighter, bigger, and Immanuelle could make out the shape of a lone rider tearing after them.

Ezra raised his rifle, squeezing one eye shut as he peered down the barrel. He fit his finger over the trigger. “Buying time.”

What happened next passed in glimpses. A rider emerged from
the black, cloaked, his holy dagger beating against his breast as his horse charged forward. There was a shout.

A bullet whistled past Immanuelle’s head.

Ezra pulled the trigger.

The guardsman behind them fell from his horse and struck the road, motionless, his shattered lantern burning in the dust beside him. Another light in the southern darkness, another rider drawing near. Bullets broke through the black and Immanuelle crouched low, snapping the reins and urging the horse onward.

Ezra fired a few warning shots into the darkness, forcing the riders to fall back, only for the next to emerge from the shadows, rifles raised, screaming orders and curses into the night.

Immanuelle urged the horse onward, but the riders were too fast, and when more lights appeared in the west, she knew that fleeing was futile.

It was over.

“We’re not going to make it,” she cried above the roaring wind, the reins eating deep into her palms. “There’s too many of them!”

Ezra lowered his rifle, climbing over the back of the wagon to the bench. He snatched the reins from her hands and dragged on them hard. The horse reared, and Ezra jumped to the ground before the wagon stopped moving.

“What are you doing?” Immanuelle demanded.

“Getting you out of Bethel.” He put the reins in her hands again. “The guardsmen posted at the gate will make sure they open for you. You’ll have to get through fast, before the Prophet’s Guard orders them shut again. But once you’re out, you’re safe, at least until my father gives the Guard clearance to pursue you in the wilds.”

“Ezra—”

“Ride hard and don’t look back for anything. Understand?
There are provisions in the wagon, coins and goods to trade with. If you can make it through the wilds to the towns on the other side, you should have enough to last you through the winter, if need be.”

Immanuelle choked back tears. “Ezra. They’ll arrest you on treason for firing on the Prophet’s Guard. You can’t stay here. You can’t do this.”

“You won’t make it to the gate if I don’t,” said Ezra, his voice hoarse. “The riders are too fast. I can buy you some time.”

“But what about the warrant?”

“It’s with the guardsmen already. I saw to that days ago. You’re expected, so when you approach the gate, it’ll open for you. But you have to go. Now.”

The thunder of horses’ hooves grew louder, drowning the toll of the church bells. In the distance, Immanuelle saw the bright flare of a raised torch sputter to light.

“Go,” said Ezra, and he turned to face the riders, rifle raised. When Immanuelle didn’t move, he yelled. “Now!”

Immanuelle tossed the reins. The horse charged forward with a start, and they were off again, racing through the darkness, leaving Ezra behind them.

Immanuelle heard a shot, but she wasn’t sure who fired. She didn’t turn around. She kept her eyes on the road, her hands around the reins.

Don’t look back,
she told herself again and again, like she was reciting a prayer.
Don’t look back. Don’t look back.

Another bullet hissed through the night, this one closer than the first. Then a third.

She peered over her shoulder and saw Ezra stagger, his rifle nearly slipping from his hands. He took two steps forward, one back; then he raised the weapon to his shoulder again and fired into the darkness.

Immanuelle snapped the reins. The village was in view now, and she could see the lights on the gate. She was almost there. Just half a league more. All she had to do was keep going.

Another bullet whistled through the darkness.

This time, Immanuelle didn’t turn to look. Lashing the reins, she urged the horse onward, into Amas. A smear of town houses blurred past. The cart rattled across cobblestones and deep ruts in the road. The streets were mostly empty, but the few who were in them leaped for cover as Immanuelle barreled past.

The thunder of hoofbeats grew louder as the Prophet’s Guard drew near. Rogue horsemen emerged from adjacent alleys, picking their way through the empty market stalls. In the near distance, she could see the gate, lit with the light of flaming torches.

A bullet whistled past her head.

Immanuelle cracked the reins, breaking for the gate at full speed, determined to make it even if she had to abandon the cart and haul herself over the top of it. Once she cleared it, the horsemen would stand down, as they had no right to pursue her beyond Bethel’s borders without a formal warrant from the Prophet. As soon as she was past the Hallowed Gate, she was safe . . . at least for a little while.

The Prophet’s guardsmen gained on her. Cries and gunshots echoed through the empty market stall. In mere moments she’d be surrounded. She wasn’t going to make it to the gate; she wasn’t going to make it out of the market at all. The Prophet’s Guard was going to cut her short and haul her back to the Haven for contrition and trial and purging—

Something moved through the night.

Not wind but rather the absence of it, as though all the air was being sucked away. Torches went dark like matches pinched between two fingers. Oil lamps flickered out. Overhead, the moon died and the stars after it, each one winking out like a candle
snuffed, until the skies were black. A great blanket of shadow fell over Amas, smothering the village.

The plague of darkness was upon them at last.

In the black behind her, Immanuelle heard riders fall. Rogue gunshots ringing through the darkness. The confused shouts of the Prophet’s guardsmen.

It was only by luck and the persistence of her own keen memory that Immanuelle—blind in the sea of night—was able to navigate through the last of the market stalls and out onto the main road. She whispered to the horse, urging it onward into the dark, toward what she knew to be the gate, though the shadows were so thick she couldn’t see it.

Then, lights, bobbing in the sea of the black like fireflies. Torches on the gate, the peal of a ram’s horn, gears grinding with an ear-splitting screech. By the faint glow of torches newly lit, Immanuelle saw the gate heave open. She snapped the reins a final time, and the horse lunged forward, out of Bethel, and into the dark of the wilderness.

BOOK: The Year of the Witching
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