Authors: Alexis Henderson
“You look like the bride of a prophet,” said Immanuelle, trying not to sound as sad as she felt.
Leah beamed and gave a little twirl, the pale skirts of her cutting gown billowing, light as fog. She’d hand sewn them from chiffon months before her wedding, working through the night by candlelight, stitching the verses of the Prophet’s Scriptures into her underskirts, as was custom for young brides. Her feet were bare and clean, her hair parted down the middle. About her neck was a new golden holy dagger much like the ones the apostles wore, though its blade was dull and much shorter. She toyed with it a bit as she spoke. “I thought you’d never come. I was worried.”
“Our mule took his time,” said Immanuelle.
“Well, I’m glad you’re here now. I need you. For strength.”
“You have me. Always.”
Leah reached out to grasp Immanuelle’s hand, her fingers
cold. She studied the bandages. “Are you going to tell me what happened?”
“I wasn’t planning to.”
“Well, I want to know and you can’t refuse me because it’s my cutting day. Out with it.”
Immanuelle gazed down at her boots. “I was burned as a punishment.”
“It was Martha’s doing, wasn’t it?”
Immanuelle nodded, not looking at her.
“She’s too hard on you. Always has been.”
“This time, the punishment was warranted. Believe me.”
Leah frowned. “What did you do?”
Immanuelle stalled, half ashamed, half afraid to tell her. “I went into the Darkwood. My ram broke free of his tether, fled for the trees. I tried to follow him, but night fell fast and I got lost. I was going to give up, wait until morning to find my way home again . . . but then I heard voices.”
“And what did the voices say?”
Immanuelle faltered. “They weren’t saying anything I could understand.”
“So they were . . .
“No. I don’t think so. It’s just that the sounds they were making, they weren’t words at all. It was just whimpers and moaning.”
Leah looked very pale and very sick. “What did they look like?”
“They were tall, very thin. Too thin. And they were lying together in a glen in the woods, embracing the way a husband and wife might.”
Leah’s eyes went wide. “What did they do when they saw you?”
Immanuelle opened her mouth to tell her about her mother’s journal but stopped short. It was better for the both of them if she bit her tongue. She feared she’d said too much already. After all, in a short while Leah would be the Prophet’s wife, bound to him by
the sacred seal. Immanuelle knew there was power in a promise like that, and while she trusted Leah as her friend, as a prophet’s bride she wouldn’t belong to herself anymore. “They didn’t do anything. They just stood there. I ran before they had the chance to come closer.”
Leah was quiet for a long time, as if trying to decide whether or not she believed her. Then: “What on earth were you thinking? The woods are dangerous. There’s a reason we’re taught to stay clear of them.”
A flare of anger licked up the back of Immanuelle’s neck. “You think I don’t know that?”
Leah caught her by the shoulder, gripping so hard she winced. “Knowing isn’t enough, Immanuelle. You have to promise me you’ll never go into the Darkwood again.”
“Good,” said Leah, and her grip slackened. “I hope those women you saw go back to the hell they came from. There’s no place for them here.”
“But they weren’t here,” said Immanuelle quietly. “They were in the Darkwood.”
“And does the Father not have power over the woods as well?”
Immanuelle thought of her mother’s journal, the four words at the end of her final entry:
Blood. Blight. Darkness. Slaughter.
“Maybe the Father turned His back on the forest,” she said, careful to keep her voice low. “He has His kingdom, and the Dark Mother has Hers.”
“Yet you passed through the Darkwood’s corridors unharmed. That has to mean something.”
Before Immanuelle had the chance to respond, the church bell tolled and the front doors swung open. The Prophet entered in a slant of sunlight. He wore plain clothes, no robes or stoles as he did on Sabbath days. Somehow, his common wear made him all
the more intimidating. Immanuelle could not help but notice how sallow he looked. His eyes were shadowed with dark bags and she could have sworn there was blood crusting in the corners of his lips.
The Prophet’s gaze went to Immanuelle first, falling to her dress, and something like recognition stirred in his eyes. He seemed to stare through her, to a lost time when Miriam was still alive. She had never fully understood what the Prophet had seen in her mother. Some said it was love, others lust, but most believed that Miriam had seduced the Prophet with her witchery. There were so many stories and secrets, tangled threads and loose ends, but Immanuelle wondered if the truth lay somewhere in the intersections between them all.
After a long beat, the Prophet turned and nodded to Leah, as if he’d only just remembered she was there. He walked to the altar in silence, only pausing to cough into his sleeve. The rest of the congregation spilled in after him, filing into the pews. The apostles walked around the perimeter of the room, Ezra among them.
Immanuelle tried her best not to look at him.
In turn, Leah’s gaze fell to the Prophet. “It’s time.”
Immanuelle nodded, giving Leah’s hand a final squeeze before she slipped toward the altar. As Immanuelle went to find her place in the pews, the apostles lifted an invocation and Leah climbed up onto the altar, careful to gather her skirts in such a way that her knees didn’t show. And there she lay, motionless, in wait of the blade.
The Prophet placed his hand to her belly. “I bless you with the seed of the Father.” His hand shifted to her chest. “The heart of the lamb.”
Leah gave a tremulous smile. Tears slipped down her cheeks.
The Prophet lifted the chain of his dagger and slipped it over
his head. “May the power of the Father move through you, henceforth and forevermore.”
The flock spoke in unison.
With that, he lowered the blade to Leah’s forehead and cut her, carving the first line of the holy seal. She did not scream or struggle, even as the blood slipped down her temples and pooled in the hollows of her ears.
The flock watched in silence. Immanuelle gripped the pew white-knuckled to keep herself from bolting as the cutting ritual dragged on.
What felt like hours later, the Prophet placed a hand to the top of Leah’s head and stroked her, gently, his fingers lingering in the locks of her hair, mussing her curls.
At his touch, Leah sat up slowly, a trickle of blood skimming down the slope of her nose and slicking her lips. With a wavering smile and tear-filled eyes, she turned to face the congregation and licked the blood away.
Lilith with her crown of bone
Is mother of the beasts
Delilah with her tender smile
Swims in waters deep
Jael and Mercy sing their songs
to moon and stars above
Telling tales of mortal sin
And their unholy love
But those that venture to the wood
after the sun sinks low
Will never see the morning’s light
Or live to learn and grow
A FEAST FOLLOWED
the cutting, one of the biggest since the autumn harvest. There were nine tables to accommodate the guests of Leah and the Prophet, each so long they stretched from one end of the churchyard to the other. Every one was crowded with an assortment of platters and dishes. There was braised beef and potatoes, roasted corn, and an assortment of breads and cheeses. To drink, apple cider and barley wine, which the men guzzled from big, wooden mugs, their beards rimmed with lather. For dessert, poached plums with cream and sugar.
Overhead, the moon hung round and full and the sky was spangled with stars. The guests partook in abundance, dining and chatting and laughing, drunk off the power of the cutting. Families gathered in fellowship and the Prophet’s wives moved
between tables, tending to the guests and taking the time to greet each person in turn.
At the head of all of this—at a small table set for two—sat Leah and her husband, the Prophet. She was smiling despite the pain of her new wound, which had since been cleaned and bandaged. When she saw Immanuelle, sitting with the Moores in the back of the churchyard, Leah’s smile grew wider still. Her eyes were ablaze with the light of the bonfires, her cheeks flushed from the heat and perhaps a few too many sips of barley wine. At her side sat the Prophet, his elbows propped up on the table, fingers laced. He followed his new wife’s gaze to Immanuelle, and she got the distinct impression that he was studying her.
A chill cut down Immanuelle’s spine at the thought, but before she had the chance to look away, the Prophet stood up, and at once, his flock fell silent. His gaze shifted away from her as he rounded the table to address the congregation. “Tonight is a joyous occasion,” he said, his voice a little hoarse. “I have joined myself in holy union with a true daughter of the Father, and for that, I am grateful.”
The flock applauded.
“The Father, in His divine providence, has seen fit to offer me many wives who embody the virtues of our faith. Because of that, I would like to honor our Father in celebration for His infinite grace and generosity.” He paused to cough into the crook of his shirtsleeve, then recovered himself with a smile. “Call forth the witches.”
The congregation cheered. Men raised their cups and wives clattered their plates against the tabletop; children slapped their knees and bellies. At the sound of the fanfare, the apostles emerged from the cathedral, bearing scarecrows fashioned into the shape of women. Each of the figures was mounted on an iron cross so that her wooden arms were outstretched, her neck and body bound.
Upon their arrival, the congregation erupted into applause. Men raised their fists, shouting curses to the wind.
The first apostle stepped forward with the first witch, a small wicker figure barely bigger than Honor.
“That’s Mercy,” said Anna, taking time to school her daughters in the particulars of the faith.
The next apostle held his witch high above his head, so her nightgown lashed and fluttered on the wind. When her skirt flapped up, exposing what would be her modesty, a few of the bolder men jeered.
“And who might she be?” Anna pointed as the apostle carried the figure toward the roaring flames.
“That’s Jael,” said Immanuelle, and she shuddered when she said the name, remembering the wretched creature she’d encountered in the Darkwood days before. “The second Lover.”
“Aye,” said Anna, and her lip curled in disgust. “That’s her. And she’s a mean one too. Wicked and cunning like the Dark Mother Herself.” She snaked out a hand to tickle Honor’s belly. The girl shrieked and giggled, kicking her legs beneath the table, the plates and cups jumping a bit when her boot struck its leg.
The third witch followed. She wore a dress not so unlike Immanuelle’s, only her bodice was stuffed with straw to emulate the swell of a pregnant woman’s belly.
“Delilah,” said Martha. “Witch of the Water. Hell’s own whore.”
It was Ezra who carried the last witch, bearing her on an iron cross. The figure was twice the size of the others, and she was naked, her body a thatch-work of birch branches. The arms of a sapling twisted from either side of her head, forming a rack of antlers.
Anna didn’t say her name out loud, though she cheered when Ezra carried her near. But Glory and Honor fell silent in her wake, cringing a little as the shadow of the last witch slipped past them.
Her name surfaced from the depths of Immanuelle’s mind: Lilith. First daughter of the Dark Mother. Witch Queen of the Woodland who reigned in wrath, slaying any and all who opposed her.
Each of the apostles raised his witch overhead and staked her deep into the soil, so that the figures stood upright on their iron crosses. The Prophet raised his torch, a flaming branch nearly as long as Immanuelle was tall. Then he moved it to the witches, lighting each of them in turn. The Lovers, Jael and Mercy, first, then the Witch of the Water, Delilah.
Immanuelle tasted something sour at the back of her throat, and her stomach twisted. The sound of blood pounding through her ears briefly drowned out the jeering crowds.
Lilith was the last witch to burn that night, and the Prophet made the most of the moment. He raised his blazing branch high above his head and thrust it between her horns, the way one might wield a sword. His eyes held the glow of the torch flame, the embers seeming to spark in the pits of his pupils.
In silence, Immanuelle watched Lilith burn, watched the flames chew her up and swallow her, even as the rest of the guests returned to their food and chatter. She watched the witches burn until the fires died and Lilith’s blackened bones were the only thing that remained, smoking on the arms of the iron cross.
IMMANUELLE FLED THE
feast, her belly warmed by barley wine, her head thick. She passed children running rings around the charred remains of the witch pyres, hollering hymns above the music of the fiddler. She passed Leah and the Prophet and the throng of his other wives. She passed the Moores unseen.
Immanuelle staggered around the cathedral to the graveyard behind it. There, she broke to her knees and heaved, retching barley wine into the thicket. She pushed to her feet, dizzy, took a few
steps forward, and heaved again. Her sick splattered a nearby tombstone and seeped, reeking, into the dirt.
Shaking despite the summer heat, Immanuelle breathed deeply to steady herself and wiped her mouth on her sleeve.
She had been foolish to think she could banish the memory of the witches. What she’d seen in the woods that day was real. The Lovers weren’t passing figments. They’d been flesh and blood, as real as she was. The journal, the letters, the forbidden forest—none of it would leave her, and she couldn’t leave it. No amount of prayer or penance would banish it.
What she’d seen in the woods had become a part of her . . . and it was a part of her that she knew she needed to kill, and quickly.
Pushing herself off the ground, Immanuelle wandered the cemetery, weaving between the headstones, reading epitaphs in an attempt to clear her head. Some of them belonged to prophets and apostles of ages past, but most marked the resting places of the crusader soldiers who died in the civil war to overthrow the witches. A few were mass graves, and the stones that marked these simply read:
In remembrance of the Father’s Men and
the dark they purged.
As for the witches, there were no monuments to mark their graves. Their bones and memories lay within the Darkwood.
At the center of the cemetery was a thick slab of marble, nearly two stories tall, hewn into a pinnacle that jutted from the soil like a half-buried bone. Immanuelle knelt to read the inscription at the foot of the monument, though she didn’t have to. Like most everyone in Bethel, she knew it by heart.
Here lies the Father’s first prophet, David Ford, Spring in the Year of the Flame to Winter in the Year of the Wake
. Below that, words gouged deep into the stone read:
Blood for blood.
Immanuelle shivered. Buried beneath her feet were the bones
of the Witch Killer, the prophet who’d purged and burned and cleansed Bethel of evil. For it was David Ford who’d ordered Lilith and the rest of her coven to the pyre, who’d set the fire and stoked the flames. Every purge began with him and the war he’d waged during the Dark Days.
Immanuelle pressed off the ground and stood. As she did, she heard a soft cry on the wind. Easing between the tombstones, she walked to the edge of the graveyard, which stopped just short of the forest. An iron fence ran along the edge of the cemetery, separating it from the encroaching woodland just beyond the Holy Grounds. And it was there that she spotted them, Ezra and Judith together in the darkness just a few paces from the memorial she cowered behind. They stood close to one another, and Judith was holding him by his shirt, the cloth balled up in both of her fists.
“Enough,” said Ezra, and he pulled at her fingers, trying to pry them open.
Judith only clutched him tighter. “You can’t make me want him.”
“You made a vow,” Ezra snapped. “You were cut same as Leah, and you’d do well to remember that.”
He started to push her off him, and that was when Judith rushed forward, forcing her lips to his. She fit her hands beneath his shirt, shifting her hips against him. “Please.” She mumbled into his mouth, his neck. “Please, Ezra.”
He seized her by the shoulders, shoving her back. “I said no.”
Tears filled Judith’s eyes. She strained forward again, catching him by the hilt of his dagger, and she pulled it so violently the chain that held it snapped. Silver chain links skittered into the darkness, a few flying so far they hit the ground at Immanuelle’s feet.
Her heart stumbled, then skipped a beat. She turned to leave,
tripping over the skirts of her mother’s dress as she went, desperate to get away, when one of the children playing by the fire screamed.
Ezra snapped to attention, spotting Immanuelle as he turned his head. He called her name and she fled, running as fast through the graveyard as she had in the woods the night of the storm.