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Authors: Alexis Henderson

The Year of the Witching (9 page)

BOOK: The Year of the Witching
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But there was no response, nothing. Nothing but the burning pain in her belly.

And as Immanuelle’s knees weakened beneath her, a trail of blood slicked down her leg, threading along the slope of her calf and slipping down to her ankle, where it disappeared into the water pooling at her feet.

All at once, the pond stilled.

The wind calmed, and the trees ceased their thrashing.

Lilith retreated slowly into the shadows, dipping her skull low to avoid catching the branches with her antlers. As she did so, Immanuelle could have sworn she saw something briefly flicker in the blacks of her sockets. And then the witch was gone.

IMMANUELLE RAN. BUT
with every step, every lunge she took through brush and bracken, the pain in her stomach grew sharper, and the darkness grew thicker, and the forest seemed to swallow her up, dragging her back ten feet for every five she sprinted. Overhead, the branches arched into a strange kaleidoscope, moonlight splintering, shadows smearing, stars flickering in the black.

But she ran onward, even as the darkness dragged at her ankles, drawing her back to the forest’s heart. She saw a distant light in the darkness. The dull glow of candle-warmed windows. The Moore farmhouse peered through the gaps between trees.

Pain carved through her belly and a great roaring filled her ears as the shadows rose around her. The last thing Immanuelle saw, before the night swallowed her, was the bright eye of the moon, winking through the trees.

C
HAPTER
N
INE

With the bloodletting comes the power of the heavens and hells. For an iron offering buys atonement, in all of its many forms.

—T
HE
H
OLY
S
CRIPTURES

IMMANUELLE WOKE SPRAWLED
across the floor. It took her a few seconds to realize she was not in the deep of the Darkwood, but in her own house, in her own kitchen, lying facedown at the foot of the sink. Across the room, her wet and muddied cloak lay in a heap beside the back door, which was slightly ajar.

All at once, the memories of the night came flooding back to her. There was Delilah slithering through the reeds and shallows, Lilith slipping back into the shadows of the Darkwood as silently as she arrived, the branches closing in around her, the darkness falling. She remembered running through the woods, the pain in her belly, the bleeding, collapsing at the forest’s edge, the moon’s face peering down at her through the breaks between trees.

She might have thought it was all a dream, if not for the black sludge caked beneath her nails, her wet hair and muddy nightdress.

No, it had happened.
All
of it had happened.

From the blue light seeping in through the kitchen window, she knew it was nearing sunup, though as far as she could tell the rest of the household had yet to wake. She was grateful for that.
She could only imagine the thrashing Martha would inflict if she knew Immanuelle had been in the forest again.

Immanuelle pushed the thought from her mind, tasting bile at the back of her throat. Dull pain split through her belly again and she winced. Squinting, she peered down between her legs to see that there was a small, cold puddle of blood beneath her. She was flowing freely, the red wet seeping through her underskirts and staining the floorboards.

Her first bleed.

IMMANUELLE SCRAMBLED TO
clean the kitchen, sopping up the blood with an old dish towel, wiping the mud away. When the floor was scrubbed clean, she crept upstairs to the washroom, snatched a fistful of rags from the basket by the sink, and struggled to fit them into her bloomers, feeling less like a woman and more like a toddler trying to change its own soiling cloths. Her bleed should have been a moment of celebration, relief—against all odds, she was a woman at last—but all she felt was small and wounded and a little sick.

Immanuelle shared the news with Anna first, then Martha after her. There was a flurry of excitement, someone sat her down in a dining room chair, provided her with a steaming cup of raspberry-leaf tea and a plate of eggs and fry cake, which she felt far too ill to eat. But despite Anna’s insistence that she remain in bed, by sunup Immanuelle was on her way to the pastures, crook in hand. Herding the flock was a difficult task. She was slow and tired from her night in the woods, and her belly ached with the pains of bleeding. The flock seemed to sense her disquiet. The rams were restless, the ewes skittish. The lambs bleated at every passing breeze as if they feared the wind would snatch the meat off their bones. It took everything Immanuelle had to herd them
to the western pastures, and when the deed was finally done, she collapsed into the high grass, spent, her stomach aching.

Just beyond the pasture’s edge, the Darkwood loomed, the forest’s shadow clawing across the plains as the sun shifted. A few vultures circled the pines, riding the wind, but there was no sign of the witches. No women of the wood. No writhing Lovers. Delilah didn’t lurk among the trees and she saw no sign of Lilith.

The woods were silent.

As the light of the rising sun shifted through the trees, Immanuelle’s thoughts went to the final entry in Miriam’s journal:
Blood. Blight. Darkness. Slaughter. Father help them.

What had Miriam seen in the woods that inspired those writings? What did she know that Immanuelle didn’t? And perhaps most importantly, what was the carnal urge that compelled Immanuelle to return to the forest again and again despite the danger?

Why did the Darkwood call to her?

Immanuelle might have sat there all day, staring at the trees and struggling with the truth, if she hadn’t been distracted by the sound of someone calling her name.

She turned, squinting against the light of the rising sun, and saw Ezra coming toward her, a package in his hand. “Good morning,” he said.

With a pang, Immanuelle remembered seeing him the previous night, on the edge of the woods, wrapped in Judith’s embrace.

Immanuelle shifted her gaze back to her sheep. In the distance, their farmhand, Josiah, herded the flock away from the Darkwood. “May the Father will it so.”

Ezra stopped just short of her, but the breeze carried the scent of him—fresh-cut hay and cedar. A beat of silence. He slipped his hands into his pockets. “I’m here to apologize.”

Immanuelle faltered, unsure of what to say. Officials of the
Church rarely offered apologies, on account of the fact that they rarely sinned. “Apologize for what?”

Ezra sat down in the grass beside her, so close their shoulders almost touched. He watched the pasture in silence, then turned to her. “For what you saw last night, after the feast. I didn’t behave in a way that was worthy of my name. It was low of me, and it was also selfish to make you privy to my sins.”

His sins weren’t her concern. Immanuelle’s gaze moved to the tree line. She hugged her knees to her chest and stayed silent. Without waiting for her reply, Ezra pushed the package he had been carrying into her hands.

Immanuelle was of a mind to refuse his gift, until she felt the weight and shape of it. It was a book.

“It’s the one you were reading in the market,” he said as she ripped the paper away. A little color came to his cheeks and he almost looked embarrassed, though she knew that wasn’t possible. There was no way someone like her could provoke that reaction from the likes of him. “The same exact, nearly.”

Immanuelle flipped to the middle of the book until she found the poem she had read that day. He was right, it was the same, though the binding on the outside was different, and most every page was marked with the seal of the Church. He must have searched the Prophet’s own private library for it, she realized with a start. It would have been a kind gesture, if not for the fact that it was a bribe.

“I don’t need a book to keep quiet.” She snapped the book closed and held it out to him. “Your business is yours. I won’t tell anyone. You needn’t worry.”

“I’m not worried. I . . . just feel guilty for asking you to keep my secrets.”

“Then don’t ask,” said Immanuelle, still holding the book out to him. “It’s no trouble.”

“But it is a sin.” Ezra was right about that much. It was a sin, and a grave one at that. The same crime that put her father, Daniel, on the pyre. But in light of what she’d seen in the woods the night before, it seemed almost trite.

“Sins can be forgiven,” she said, echoing Leah’s words from a few Sabbaths prior.

“Aye,” said Ezra. “But guilt’s a hard thing to ease.”

“And that’s why you want me to have the book? To ease your guilt?”

“If it’s not too much to ask.” Ezra shrugged. “Besides, I’d rather like to have someone to chat with.”

“About poetry?”

He nodded. “There’s more of it in the library. I can check the shelves, bring you more books.”

“No,” said Immanuelle. “This will do, thank you. Even if you are trying to buy my silence.”

She cringed, anxious that yet again she’d gone too far and said too much, but Ezra only smiled.

For the first time, she noticed he had a light dusting of freckles across his nose, which was slightly crooked, as if he’d taken a bad punch in a schoolyard fight. And perhaps he had. Rumors about Ezra spread about as quickly as the rumors about her. He was known to be wickedly smart, always reading or studying, the kind of person who knew how to ask the right questions. He was also strong, with his father’s stubborn will, and like him, Ezra had the respect of most men in Bethel, and if not that, then fear—fear of the Prophet’s power that burned in him like holy fire, though he hadn’t even witnessed his First Vision yet.

“What happened to your lip?” Ezra’s question pulled her from her thoughts, and she realized he was watching her. She raised a hand to touch the spot where Judas had struck her. Though her
split lip had long since scabbed over, the edge of her mouth was still bruised and swollen. “I lost a fight with an angry ram.”

“The one you had at the market?”

“Yes.” She thought of Judas’ bleeding head, left on the stump like a present, then blurted out, “He’s dead.”

“A sacrifice?” His gaze shifted back to the pasture.

She started to shake her head but stopped herself. “Maybe.”

Ezra pressed to his feet and stretched, rolling his shoulders. “Tell me how you like that book. There’s more where that came from. There’s a library in the Haven; I can get you what you want.”

Immanuelle opened her mouth to reply, to tell him that a girl like her had no business with the Prophet’s books no matter how much she wanted to read them, when a scream broke across the pastures. She recognized the voice: Glory.

There was a moment’s pause; then a second scream rang out.

Immanuelle was on her feet in an instant. Ezra angled himself in front of her as she moved, as if he meant to shield her from whatever harm was coming their way. But Immanuelle had no time to humor his chivalry. She pushed past him, sprinting toward the echo of Glory’s cries. And as she ran, all she could think of were the women of the woods—the dead-eyed witches.

She found Glory by the well at the end of the pastures, a few yards from the forest’s edge, a bucket capsized at her feet.

“Are you hurt?” Immanuelle asked, slowing to a stop.

Glory shook her head, mouth open, blond curls sticking to her lips. Her gaze flickered to Ezra, as if she was as shocked to see him as she was by whatever had startled her. But the moment passed, and she snapped to her senses. Words seemed to catch in her throat as she pointed to the bucket with a shaking finger.

Ezra stooped to pick it up. It was then Immanuelle caught the
scent of rot on the air, wet and fetid. Something black seeped into the soil, slicking the walls of the bucket.

Immanuelle swallowed dry, her stomach roiling, as Ezra put the bucket on its hook and lowered it into the depths of the well again. He twisted the crank, and the bucket descended, disappearing into the deep. When the sound of the bucket’s rim breaking water echoed up the shaft, he began to crank the lever again, working fast, his shoulders straining with the effort.

Slowly, the bucket climbed above the stones of the well’s wall. Ezra took it off its hook and Glory staggered back, as though he’d reeled a viper from the water.

He lowered the bucket to the ground, and to Immanuelle’s horror, she saw it was filled to the brim with a thick, dark liquid that sloshed over the rim and blackened the soil below. Immanuelle dropped to her knees beside it and dipped her fingers into the bucket. When she removed her hand her fingertips were slick red.

“Blood,” she whispered, and with those words, a kind of dreadful déjà vu settled over her, so powerful it seemed to tear her soul from her body. It took her a moment to come back to herself. “Where is Martha?”

“She left for the Holy Grounds with Mother for a birthing,” said Glory, stumbling over the words. “Apostle Isaac’s sixth wife went into—”

“What of Abram? Where is he?”

“I-in his workshop.”

“Fetch him,” she said, and when the girl didn’t move, she gave her a little shove in the right direction.
“Now!”

Ezra stepped forward then, frowning down at her. “Are you all right?”

Immanuelle nodded, tried to answer him, but trailed off into
silence as she stared down at her bloodstained hand. She felt that pull again, the phantom force that had dragged her from her body mere moments before—not at all unlike the lure of the woods. “I’m . . .”

Blood. Blight. Darkness. Slaughter. Blood. Blight. Darkness. Slaughter. Blood.

Blood.

“Immanuelle—”

“Thank you for the book.” With that, Immanuelle turned and broke toward the farmhouse, cutting through the pastures in a full run. It was empty, as Glory had said it would be, and Immanuelle rushed through the parlor and bounded upstairs to her bedroom. At the foot of her bed, she dropped to her knees, slipped a hand beneath her mattress, and withdrew the journal. She opened it there on the floor, smearing the pages with blood as she tore past them to the final entry:
Blood. Blight. Darkness. Slaughter. Blood. Blight. Darkness. Slaughter. Blood. Blight. Darkness. Slaughter. Blood. Blight. Darkness. Slaughter. Blood—

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