A young woman living in a rigid, puritanical society discovers dark powers within herself in The Year of the Witching, the debut fantasy from author Alexis Henderson—publishing in July 2020 with Ace Books. Read an excerpt below!
In the lands of Bethel, where the Prophet’s word is law, Immanuelle Moore’s very existence is blasphemy. Her mother’s union with an outsider of a different race cast her once-proud family into disgrace, so Immanuelle does her best to worship the Father, follow Holy Protocol, and lead a life of submission, devotion, and absolute conformity, like all the other women in the settlement.
But a mishap lures her into the forbidden Darkwood surrounding Bethel, where the first prophet once chased and killed four powerful witches. Their spirits are still lurking there, and they bestow a gift on Immanuelle: the journal of her dead mother, who Immanuelle is shocked to learn once sought sanctuary in the wood.
Fascinated by the secrets in the diary, Immanuelle finds herself struggling to understand how her mother could have consorted with the witches. But when she begins to learn grim truths about the Church and its history, she realizes the true threat to Bethel is its own darkness. And she starts to understand that if Bethel is to change, it must begin with her.
That evening, the Moores gathered for their usual Sabbath dinner. Martha tended a bubbling vat of chicken stew that hung on an iron hook above the crackling fire, mopping sweat from her brow with the back of her hand. While she hunched over the hearth, Anna mixed batter bread with both hands, folding in fistfuls of flaxseeds and crushed walnuts, singing hymns as she worked. Immanuelle ducked between the two of them, taking on different tasks and trying her best to be of help. She was clumsy in the kitchen, but she did what she could to aid them.
Anna, ever cheerful, was the first to break the silence. “It was a good service this morning, wasn’t it?”
Immanuelle set a pewter plate down at the head of the table, before her grandfather’s empty chair. “That it was.”
Martha said nothing.
Anna plunged her fists into the bread dough again. “When the Prophet spoke, I felt like the air had been sucked right out of me. He’s a true man of the Father, that one. More so than other prophets, even. We’re lucky to have him.”
Immanuelle set one spoon beside Martha’s plate and another beside Honor’s bowl, a little wooden thing she’d carved and polished some three summers ago, when the child had been no bigger than a minnow in Anna’s womb. For Anna’s eldest, Glory, she reserved the brass spoon she liked best, an antique Martha had bought from a market peddler years ago.
Glory, like her mother, had an appetite for pretty things: ribbons and lace and sweets and other delights the Moores couldn’t afford. But when she could, Immanuelle tried her best to oblige the girl with little tokens. There were so few pretty things left in the house. Most of their treasures and trinkets had been sold during the thick of the winter in an attempt to make up for the bad reap and all the livestock they’d lost to sickness the past summer. But if Immanuelle had anything to say about it, Glory would have her spoon, a small token to offset their world of lack.
When the meal was prepared, Martha carried the vat of stew to the table and set it down with a loud thump that carried through the house. At the sound, Honor and Glory raced into the dining room, eager to fill their seats and eat. The wives sat next, Immanuelle’s grandmother, Martha, claiming her place at the opposite end of the table, as was custom, and Anna, second wife of Immanuelle’s grandfather, claiming the seat beside her husband’s empty chair.
After a few long moments, there was the groan of hinges, the sound of a door opening, then the pained and shuffling racket of Abram making his way down the stairs. Her grandfather was having a bad day; Immanuelle could tell by the sound of his gait, the way his stiff foot dragged across the groaning floorboards as he moved toward the table. He had skipped church again that morning, making it the third Sabbath he’d missed in a month.
Once, long ago, Abram had been an apostle—and a powerful one, too. He had been the right hand of Simon Chambers, the prophet who served before the current prophet, Grant Chambers, had been chosen and ordained. As such, Abram had once owned one of the seven estates in the sacred Holy Grounds, and he had wielded the Father’s Gift of Discernment. At age nineteen, he married Martha. The two of them were well yoked, both in age and in status, but despite this, the Father did not bless them with children for a long time. In fact, after years of trying, Abram and Martha were able to conceive only Miriam, and her birth was succeeded by a series of stillborns, all of them sons. Many later claimed that Miriam’s birth damned the children who were born after her, said that her very existence was a plague to the good Moore name.
On account of Miriam’s crimes, Abram had been stripped of his title as apostle, and all the lands that went with it. The Moore stead, which had once been a rolling range so big it rivaled the Prophet’s, was divided up among the other apostles and nearby farmers, who picked it apart like vultures do a carcass. Abram had been left with a small fragment of the land he once owned, shadowed by the same rambling forest to which he’d lost his daughter. Such was the life he lived now, in ridicule and squalor, scraping together an existence from the meager reap of pastures and blighted cornfields that were his only claim.
It had been nothing short of a miracle that Anna agreed to follow Abram to the altar eighteen years ago despite the shame of Miriam’s fall from grace. Immanuelle suspected that her loyalty stemmed from the fact that Abram had used his Healing Touch to save her when she was dying of fever as a young girl. It was as though she owed him a kind of life debt and was steadfast in her resolve to fulfill it. Perhaps that was why her love for Abram seemed more akin to the way the apostles revered the Holy Father than to the common affections between husband and wife.
As Abram entered the dining room, Anna broke into a wide smile, the way she always did. But Abram paid her no mind as he limped past the threshold. He paused to catch his breath, bracing his hands on the back of a broken chair. The right side of his body was clenched, his fingers twisted to near bone-breaking angles, his arm bent and drawn to his chest as if held by some invisible sling. He limped with his left leg thrown out to one side, and he had to brace himself on the wall to keep from falling as he dragged his way around the dining room to his seat at the head of the table.
He settled himself roughly in his chair, then began the prayer, struggling with the words. When it was finished, Abram raised his fork with his good hand and set into his food. The rest of them followed suit, the children eagerly spooning up the stew, as though they worried it would disappear before they’d have the chance to finish it. The sad truth was it was less a chicken stew and more a watery bone broth with a bit of parsnip, a few stray cabbage leaves, and the grisly scraps of the chicken. Even so, Immanuelle took pains to eat slowly, savoring every bite.
Anna took another stab at kindling conversation, but her attempts were futile. Martha kept her eyes on her stew and the girls were smart enough to stay silent, fearing their father’s wrath.
In turn, Abram didn’t say much. He rarely did on his bad days. Immanuelle could tell it pained him, to have once been the voice of the Prophet and now, in the years since her mother’s death, to be reduced to little more than the village pariah, cursed by the Father for his leniency. Or so the rumors went.
Really, Immanuelle knew little of what had happened to Abram after her mother died. All she knew were the scant morsels that Martha offered her, the fragments of a story too vile to be told in full.
Seventeen years ago, her mother, Miriam, newly betrothed to the Prophet, had taken up illicit relations with a farm boy from the Outskirts. Months later, after their affair was uncovered, that same farm boy had died on the pyre as punishment for his crimes against the Prophet and Church.
But Miriam was spared, shown mercy by the Prophet on account of their betrothal.
Then, on the night before her wedding, Miriam—grief-mad and desperate to avenge her lover’s death—had stolen into the Prophet’s bedroom while he slept and tried to slit his throat with his own sacred dagger. But the Prophet had woken and fought her off, thwarting the attack.
Before the Prophet’s Guard had the chance to apprehend her, Miriam had fled into the forbidden Darkwood—the home of Lilith and her coven of witches—where she disappeared without a trace. Miriam claimed that she spent those brutal winter months alone in a cabin at the heart of the wilderness. But given the violence of that winter and the fact that the cabin was never found, no one in Bethel believed her.
Months passed with no sign of Miriam. Then one night, in the midst of a violent snowstorm, she emerged from the Darkwood, heavy with child—the sinful issue of her lover, who had died on the pyre. Mere days after her return, Miriam gave birth to Immanuelle.
While his daughter screamed in the midst of labor, Abram was struck by a stroke so violent it remade him, twisting his limbs and warping his bones and muscles, stripping him of his strength and stature, as well as the power of his Holy Gifts. And as Miriam struggled and labored and slipped into the afterlife, so nearly did he. It was only a miracle of the Father that saved him, dragging him back from the cusp of death.
But Abram had suffered for Miriam’s sins, and he would continue to suffer for them until the day he died. Perhaps he would have suffered less if he’d had the strength to shun Immanuelle for the sins of her mother. Or if he had simply shunned Miriam after she’d returned pregnant from the woods, he may have found the Prophet’s favor once more.
But he hadn’t. And for that, Immanuelle was grateful.
“You’ll go… to the market… in the morning,” said Abram across the table, grinding the words between his teeth as he spoke, every syllable a struggle. “Sell the black yearling.”
“I’ll do my best,” Immanuelle said with a nod. If he was intent upon selling the yearling, their need must be dire. It had been a bad month, a bad month at the end of a string of terrible months. They desperately needed the money. Abram’s sickness had worsened in the winter after a bad bout of fever, and the steep costs of his medicines had pushed the family to the brink of ruin. It was vital that Immanuelle did her part to ease the burden, as they all did.
Everyone in the Moore house had some job or trade. Martha was a midwife blessed with Father’s Tongue and through it the power to call down Names from the heavens. Anna was a seamstress with a hand so gentle and an eye so keen she could darn even the finest lace. Abram, once a carpenter, had in the years after his stroke taken to whittling crude little figures that they sometimes peddled at the market. Even Glory, a talented artist despite the fact that she was barely twelve, painted little portraits on woodcuts she then sold to her friends at school. Honor, who was too young to take up a craft, helped around the farm as best she could.
And then there was Immanuelle, the shepherdess, who tended a flock of sheep with the help of a hired farm boy. Every morning, save for the Sabbath or the odd occasion when Martha called her along for a particularly risky birthing, Immanuelle would take to the pastures to watch over her sheep. Crook in hand, she’d lead them to the western range, where the flock would spend its day grazing in the shadows of the Darkwood.
Immanuelle had always felt a strange affinity for the Darkwood, a kind of stirring whenever she neared it. It was almost as though the forbidden wood sang a song that only she could hear, as though it was daring her to come closer.
But despite the temptation, Immanuelle never did.
On market days, Immanuelle took a selection of her wares—be it wool or meat or a ram—to the town market for peddling. There, she would spend the whole of her day in the square, haggling and selling her goods. If she was lucky, she’d return home after sundown with enough coppers to cover their weekly tithes. If she wasn’t, the family would go hungry, and their tithes and debts to Abram’s healers would remain unpaid.
Abram forced down another mouthful of stew, swallowing with some effort. “Sell him… for a good bit. Don’t settle for less than what he’s worth.”
Immanuelle nodded. “I’ll go early. If I take the path that cuts through the Darkwood, I’ll make it to the market before the other merchants.”
The conversation died into the clatter of forks and knives striking plates. Even Honor, young as she was, knew to mind her tongue. There was silence, save for the rhythmic drip, drip, drip of the leak in the corner of the kitchen.
Martha’s cheeks all but drained of color and her lips were bloodless. “You never go into those woods, you hear? There’s evil in them.”
Immanuelle frowned. The way she saw it, sin wasn’t a plague you could catch if you ventured too close. And she wasn’t sure she believed all the legends about the evils in the womb of the Darkwood. In truth, Immanuelle wasn’t sure what she believed, but she was fairly certain a brief shortcut through the forest wouldn’t be her undoing.
Still, no good would come from an argument, and she knew that in a battle of wills, she couldn’t win. Martha had a heart of iron and the kind of unwavering faith that could make stones tremor. It was futile to provoke her.
And so, Immanuelle bit her tongue, bowed her head, and resigned herself to obey.
That night, Immanuelle dreamed of beasts: a girl with a gaping mouth and the yellowed teeth of a coyote; a woman with moth wings who howled at the rising moon. She woke in the early morning to the echo of that cry, the sound slapping back and forth between the walls of her skull.
Bleary-eyed and drunk with exhaustion, Immanuelle dressed clumsily, trying to push the twisted images of the woodland ghouls from her mind as she fumbled into her button-down dress and readied herself for a day at the market.
Slipping out of the sleeping household, Immanuelle strode toward the far pastures. She began most every morning like this—tending to the sheep by the light of dawn. On the rare occasion when she couldn’t—like the week she caught whooping cough a few summers prior—a hired farmhand by the name of Josiah Clark stepped in to fill her role.
Immanuelle found her flock huddled together in the eastern pastures, just beyond the woodland’s shadow. Crows roosted in the branches of the oaks and birches in the nearby forest, though they sang no songs. The silence was as thick as the morning’s fog, and it was broken only by the sound of Immanuelle’s lullaby, which echoed through the foothills and distant fields like a dirge.
It wasn’t a normal lullaby, like the folk songs or nursery rhymes that mothers sing to their children, but rather a rendition of an old mourning hymn she had once heard at a funeral. Her song carried across the pastures, and at the sound her flock moved east, sweeping like a tide across the rolling hills. They were upon her in moments, bleating and trotting happily, pressing up against her skirts. But the yearling ram, Judas, hung back from the rest, his hooves firmly planted and his head hanging low. Despite his age, he was a large and fearsome thing with a shaggy black coat and two sets of horns: the first set jutting like daggers from the crown of his skull, the second curling back behind his ears and piercing along the harsh cut of his jaw.
“Judas,” Immanuelle called above the hiss of wind in the high grass. “Come now, it’s time to go to the market.”
The ram struck the dirt with his hooves, his eyes squinted thin. As he stepped forward, the sheep stirred and parted, the little lambs tripping over their hooves to make way for him. He stopped just a few feet from Immanuelle, his head turned slightly to the side so he could stare at her through the twisted crook of his horn.
“We’re going to the market.” She raised the lead rope for him to see, the slack dangling above the ground. “I’ll need to tether you.”
The ram didn’t move.
Stooping to one knee, Immanuelle eased the loop of the knot over his horns, tugging the rope taut to tighten it. The ram fought her, kicking and bucking and throwing his head, striking the earth with his hooves. But she held fast, bracing her legs and tightening her grip, the rope chafing across her palms as Judas reared and struggled.
“Easy,” she said, never raising her voice above a murmur. “Easy there.”
The ram threw his head a final time and huffed hard, a cloud of steam billowing from his nostrils, thick as pipe smoke on the cold morning air.
“Come on, you old grump.” She urged him along with another tug on the lead rope. “We’ve got to get you to the market.”
The walk through the Glades was long, and despite the initial chill of the morning, the sun was hot. Trails of sweat slipped down Immanuelle’s spine as she trudged along the winding path to town. Had she taken the shortcut through the woodland—instead of the long way around the forest’s edge—she would have been in town already. But she’d promised Martha she’d stay clear of the woods, and she was determined to keep her word.
So Immanuelle trudged on, her knapsack weighing heavy on her shoulders as she went. Her feet ached in her boots, which were a size and a half too small and pinched her heels so badly they blistered. It often seemed like everything she owned was either too big or too small, like she wasn’t fit for the world she was born to.
Excerpted from The Year of the Witching, copyright © 2020 by Alexis Henderson.