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Authors: Alexis Henderson

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BOOK: The Year of the Witching
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C
HAPTER
F
OUR

It is an odd love between the Father and the Mother, between the light and the darkness. Neither can exist without the other. And yet they can never be one.

—T
HE
H
OLY
S
CRIPTURES

THE BLOND WOMAN
stepped forward first, her hand slithering free of her lover’s grasp. She crossed the glade in a few long strides and stopped just short of where Immanuelle stood. Up close, she could see that the woman’s features were mangled—her nose was badly broken, the bone at the bridge protruding into a sharp joint. Her lips were full, if a little swollen, and Immanuelle saw that the bottom one was split down the middle. Her breasts hung heavy and bare, and her head lolled to one side, as if her neck lacked the strength to hold her skull upright.

The black-haired woman eased forward after her, wading through the grass and bracken. She was the taller and more beautiful of the two and she walked with the tentative grace of a doe. She stopped just short of her lover and slid a hand around her waist, as if to draw her back. But the woman brushed her off and stepped forward anyway, slowly extending a hand to Immanuelle, as if in greeting. Her fingers were pale and crooked—as mangled as Abram’s—and they were folded around something small and black.

A leather-bound book.

The pale woman pressed the tome to Immanuelle’s chest and she staggered back, falling into the trunk of a nearby pine. The woman’s mouth wrenched into something like a smile.

Take it.
The words were on the wind, seething through the branches of the trees. Immanuelle’s knees went weak at the sound.
It’s yours.

Her hands trembled as she accepted the woman’s gift. The book was heavy, and strangely warm to the touch, as though blood flowed through its binding. As she grasped it, Immanuelle felt no fear at the presence of the women, no shame at their nakedness. The strangest sensation settled over her. It was a kind of unmooring, as if her soul wasn’t bound to her body anymore.

A strangled scream split through the forest, breaking her trance.

Judas.

Immanuelle snapped to attention and turned back to the trees. She managed to stagger forward a few steps, snatch her knapsack from the ground, and shove the book into its front pocket before she broke into a full run.

Branches snagged her dress and lashed her cheeks. She couldn’t tell if it was the wind wailing in her ears, or the women calling her back to the clearing. But with every step, every lunge, the forest seemed to swallow her. The brush thickened; the treetops pressed lower; the shadows churned like stirred ink.

She didn’t care. She ran on.

Immanuelle’s boot caught the hook of a tree root, and she fell, striking the dirt with a
thud
. She pushed herself from the ground, gasping for air, and saw a familiar face peering back at her from the shadows: Judas.

But it wasn’t
all
of Judas—just his head, severed, bleeding, perched atop a nearby tree stump.

She shoved a hand to her mouth at the sight of him, biting back a shriek and the bile that clawed up her throat. She began to shake,
great shudders that racked her so violently she could barely stay on her feet.

She started running again, even faster this time, cutting through the thicket and between the pines, desperate to escape. And, by the Father’s grace, she did.

The trees began to thin, and the shadows retreated, and gradually the woodland gave way to the Bethelan plains, and she could at last see the winding path that would lead her home again. She collapsed there on the edge of the woodland, crawling from the shadows of the trees on her hands and knees as she struggled to catch her breath. She managed to force herself to her feet, weak-kneed and heaving as she limped the rest of the way home to the Glades, staggering down the path as if she had weights chained to her ankles. As she neared the Moore land, she saw Martha, Anna, and Glory walking the high pastures and the dead cornfields, all of them grasping lanterns and calling her name.

Immanuelle shouted to them and they turned. Glory broke forward first, the hem of her nightgown lashing around her ankles as she sprinted. She caught Immanuelle around the waist in a fierce hug.

Anna came next, praising the heavens as she raised a hand to Immanuelle’s cheek to run her fingers along the bleeding scratches where the brambles had cut her, her split lip and bruised chin. “What happened?”

Immanuelle opened her mouth to answer, but no words came out. She raised her gaze to Martha, who was standing a few yards back, her lantern lowered, eyes narrowed. Without a word, she dipped her head, motioning the three of them back to the farmhouse. Glory loosened her grip around Immanuelle’s waist and Anna backed away, and the four of them walked across the pastures in utter silence.

After they entered the house, Anna ushered Glory up the stairs,
pausing only to wish the two of them good night. It was only after they disappeared into their respective bedrooms that Martha turned to Immanuelle and spoke: “Follow me.”

Martha led her through the parlor and into the kitchen, which was dark save for the warm glow of the hearth. She took an iron poker from its hook and stoked the fire. Then she leaned the handle against the side of the hearth, propped up on the bricks so its iron point remained in the thick of the flames. “Did you sell the ram?”

Immanuelle shook her head.

“Then where is he?”

Immanuelle closed her eyes, and she could still see Judas’ head perched atop that stump. “I lost him. I lost him in the woods.”

“You went into the Darkwood? At
night
?”

“I didn’t mean to,” Immanuelle said softly, her split lip throbbing as she spoke. “Judas broke free of his tether and ran into the trees. I thought I could find him, but there was a storm and I got lost, and then night fell. I’m so sorry. It was dangerous and foolish. I should have known better. I should have listened to you.”

Martha pressed a hand to her brow. She looked old in that moment, withered, like the happenings of the night had drained what little youth she had left. Abram was not the only one who had wasted over the passing years. Immanuelle had watched Martha suffer too. She knew her grandmother clung to her doctrines and her scriptures not out of faith, but out of fear. For though Martha never so much as muttered her daughter’s name, Immanuelle knew she lived in Miriam’s shadow. Everything Martha did—from her prayers to her charity—was just a futile attempt to escape the curse of her daughter’s death.

“I saw something,” Immanuelle said, and her own voice sounded distant and foreign, like some stranger was speaking from another room.

“What?” A terrible light came to Martha’s eyes. “What did you see?”

“Women. Two women in the woods, alone.” Immanuelle folded her fingers around the strap of her pack. The strange book felt as heavy as a stone at the bottom of it. She knew she ought to surrender it to Martha. But she didn’t; she couldn’t. The women’s words in the wind traced through her mind:
It’s yours.
Immanuelle had never owned much of anything. Sometimes she felt like she barely belonged to herself. The idea of parting with one of the few things in the world that was hers to claim was almost unbearable, worse than a lashing. No, she couldn’t give it up.

“And what were these women doing in the woods?”

Immanuelle swallowed thickly. For a moment, she remembered how she had felt back at her first confession: sitting at the edge of her chair in the shadows of the kitchen, the apostle Amos seated opposite her, Scriptures in hand, frowning. He’d asked her if she’d ever indulged in the sins of the flesh, or if, in the night, her hands had wandered where they ought not go.

Martha huffed, and Immanuelle returned to the present. “They were together, holding hands. And their eyes were odd, glazed, all white. They looked sick. Almost, well . . . dead.”

Martha’s lips twitched, then twisted so violently that, in the dull glow of the hearth, she almost favored Abram. Her hand shook as she reached for the poker again, grasping its iron hilt as she drew it from the coals, hot and red and smoking. “Hold out your hand.”

Immanuelle took a half step backward. Try as she might, she couldn’t bring herself to unfurl her fingers. Her nails cut deep into the soft of her palms.

Martha’s gaze darkened. “It’s either your hand or your cheek. Choose.”

Gritting her teeth, Immanuelle raised her arm and extended her hand into the bloody glow of the fire’s light.

In turn, Martha uttered the sinner’s prayer. “Mind thine eye and heart’s desire. Still thy tongue and stop thy ear. Heed the call of thy Father’s whisper. Linger not with devils near. Turn thy heart from sin’s temptation, and when thy soul is cast astray, seek solace through true confession, in atonement find thy way.”

Martha’s grasp tightened around the poker’s hilt, and she lowered its glowing point to the flat of Immanuelle’s palm. “For the glory of the Father.”

The scorching pain of the burn brought Immanuelle to her knees. She cut a scream through gritted teeth and collapsed, weeping, clutching her hand to her chest.

Her vision went for a moment, and when her eyes focused again, she found herself leaning against the kitchen cabinets, Martha on the floor beside her. The faint smell of flesh char hung on the air.

“Evil is sickness, and sickness is pain,” said Martha, looking ready to weep herself, as if the act of delivering the punishment was as bad as the punishment itself. “Do you hear me, child?”

Immanuelle bobbed her head, choking back a sob. With her good hand, she drew the knapsack close, fearing her grandmother would search it and find the book within.

“Tell me you understand. Promise me.”

Immanuelle dragged the words up from the pit of her belly. The lie tasted bitter as it skimmed across her tongue. “I promise.”

C
HAPTER
F
IVE

The Father loves those who serve Him faithfully. But those who stray from the path of righteousness—the heathen and the witch, the lecher and the heretic—will feel the heat of His heavenly flames.

—T
HE
H
OLY
S
CRIPTURES

THAT NIGHT, AFTER
Anna bandaged her hand and the rest of the Moores were asleep in their beds, Immanuelle slipped the forbidden book from her knapsack and raised it to the candlelight. It was well-made, she realized upon closer inspection. Its front and back covers were cut from scraps of leather, as soft as the muzzle of a newborn calf. A silk bookmark stuck out from between its pages, so light it fluttered a little when Immanuelle breathed.

She peeled open the front cover, the spine cracking with the motion, and caught the mingling perfume of aged paper and horse glue. There was a scribbled signature at the bottom of the first page:
Miriam Elizabeth Moore
.

Immanuelle’s hands shook so violently she almost dropped the book. That was her mother’s name and signature. The book had belonged to her. But why would those women in the Darkwood have a book that was once her mother’s? What business did they have with her?

Below the signature, to Immanuelle’s shock, was a small ink sketch. Its edges were ragged as if it’d been ripped from some
other book and pasted into the pages of this one, but the details were so well rendered that Immanuelle immediately recognized her mother’s features from the paintings that hung in the parlor. In the sketch, Miriam was young, perhaps seventeen or eighteen, barely older than Immanuelle herself. She wore a long dress, colorless in the drawing, but Immanuelle knew it to be wine red, as it was the same one that lay folded at the bottom of her hope chest. In the portrait, the woods were behind her, and she was smiling.

On the following page, an illustration of a young man who favored Immanuelle. His hair was a tight cap of corkscrew curls, and a few of the loosest ringlets fell over his brow. He had a cut jaw and dark eyes fringed with thick lashes, and his skin was just a few shades deeper than Immanuelle’s. His expression was rather stern, but his eyes weren’t unkind. There was no date beneath that portrait, just his name, the first time it had ever appeared in the pages of the book:
Daniel Lewis Ward
. The portrait was accompanied by a series of writings that read like love poems:

Sometimes I think we share a soul. His pain has become mine. And mine his.

A few pages later . . .

I love him. He taught me how. I don’t think I knew how to choose to love until I met him.

The following entries were shorter, the handwriting a bit sloppier than it had been before, as if the words were written in great haste. Most of them detailed brief encounters Miriam had with Daniel under cover of night or stolen moments after church on Sabbath days. In all of these entries, of which there were dozens, Miriam never once mentioned the Prophet. Still, Immanuelle could sense his presence in the pages, a shadow in the margins, a stain behind the words. And while Immanuelle knew that this story could only ever end in tragedy, she found herself hoping in vain for a different outcome. Miriam’s entries turned from glee to
hope to trepidation to outright despair . . . and after the despair came a kind of helplessness.

There was a months’ long gap between entries and Immanuelle could only assume it accounted for the time Miriam was detained in the Prophet’s Haven. Then:
They took him from me. They put him on the pyre. The flames burned high. They made me watch the fire take him.

Immanuelle tried to blink back her tears, but a few fell anyway. She forced herself to turn the page. The next entry was dated
Summer in the Year of Omega
. It read:
I am with child.

The tears flowed freely then, and Immanuelle paused to wipe them away on the sleeve of her nightdress. The following entry was dated
Winter of Omega
—a full eight months after the one that preceded it. It read:
I have seen the evils of this world, and I have loved them.

The entries that followed were progressively stranger. Instead of the sweeping calligraphy Immanuelle had come to know as her mother’s hand, these entries were sloppy, as if she had written them in the dark. The drawings, too, were different. The portraits and landscapes had become frantic scribbles, ink-stained abstractions so mangled Immanuelle could barely decipher them. One depicted a woman bent double, appearing to vomit tree branches. Another was a self-portrait of Miriam standing naked, one arm folded around her breasts, her hair hanging loose down her back. Her pregnant belly was swollen and painted with a crude symbol that reminded Immanuelle of the seals brides wore cut between their eyebrows, only this mark was much larger.

On the opposing page, an image of two twisted figures. They were naked like the other women, and their hands were joined. Both of them bore what Immanuelle initially mistook for the Prophet’s seal between their brows. But upon closer inspection, she noticed the star in the middle of their seal had only seven
points, instead of the customary eight. Etched into the corner of the drawing was a title and date:
The Lovers, Winter in the Year of Omega
. They were the women Immanuelle had seen in the woods. The women who had given her the journal. And they weren’t just
any
women. They were the Lovers, Jael and Mercy, witches and servants of the Dark Mother who’d died in the fires of the Holy War, purged on account of their sin and lechery.

Somehow, defying all logic, they were alive in the Darkwood and her mother had
known
them. Dwelled with them perhaps. Why else would the witches have given Immanuelle the book? Why else would the book have sketches of the witches? Had the Lovers considered themselves doing Miriam’s bidding when they gave it to Immanuelle? Was this meant to be a kind of inheritance? The fulfillment of a promise they’d made to Miriam long ago?

Shaken, Immanuelle read on. The entries became shorter, fewer, and farther between. Just crude sketches mostly, punctuated here and there by the odd illegible entry. One sketch depicted two oak trees, their trunks carved with strange forked symbols. Just behind the trees, an idyllic little cabin, standing in a small dell in the midst of the forest. It took her a moment to realize what she was looking at. That cabin was the place where Miriam claimed she spent the months of winter after fleeing into the Darkwood.

Immanuelle continued skimming through these strange writings—it seemed odd to call them entries, given how incoherent they’d become. But one drawing caught her eye. In the foreground, there was a face—a hatched line for a mouth, two narrow eyes, full lips, and a crude, long nose that looked broken. In the background, lurking above her shoulder, was the twisted contour of a woman’s naked form. Mounted on her neck was not a head, but something that Immanuelle could only describe as a buck’s skull, crowned with a sprawling rack of antlers.

Lilith.

The name rose to Immanuelle’s mind unbidden, the fragment of a story told only around bonfires or whispered behind cupped hands. Lilith, daughter of the Dark Mother. The Mistress of Sins. Witch Queen of the Woodland. Immanuelle would have known her anywhere.

On the following page, a sketch of a woman emerging from what appeared to be a lake. Like the Lovers, she was naked, and her long black hair hung limp about her shoulders. The image was titled
Delilah the Witch of the Water
. Beside the drawing, a note:
I have seen the Beast and her maidens again. I hear their cries in the woods at night. They call to me, and I call to them. There is no love as pure as that.

A bitter seed formed in the pit of Immanuelle’s belly. Her hands shook as she turned the journal’s final pages. Of everything she’d seen thus far, these scribbled drawings were the most troublesome. The accompanying words were so tangled it was almost impossible to decipher them. But Immanuelle was able to parse one phrase that appeared and reappeared over and over again in the backgrounds of drawings, crushed into the margins of scribbled entries:
Her blood begets blood. Her blood begets blood.
Her blood begets blood.

Immanuelle read on, and as she did, the drawings became progressively more abstract. Some pages were just spattered with ink, others with a series of dashes inflicted so violently the marks ripped the pages to shreds. Of these final illustrations, if you could even call them that, there was only one that Immanuelle could distinguish. It, no,
she
—because, for some unfathomable reason, Immanuelle was sure it was a she—was a maelstrom. A mangle of teeth and eyes and rendered flesh. The tulip folds of what might have been the creature’s groin or perhaps an open mouth. Broken fingers and disembodied eyes with slits for pupils. Inexplicably, the ink still looked wet, and it rippled toward the edges
of the paper as if threatening to spill onto the bed, soak the sheets black.

The final entry of the journal was unlike any of those that came before it. Every inch of those two pages was covered with the same four words:
Blood. Blight. Darkness. Slaughter. Blood. Blight. Darkness. Slaughter. Blood. Blight. Darkness. Slaughter. Blood. Blight. Darkness. Slaughter . . .

On and on it went.

Just below the storm of those words, a scribbled footnote at the bottom of the journal’s final page:
Father help them. Father help us all.

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