A sweeping novel of family, sacrifice, love and magic for fans of A Discovery of Witches, The Witch’s Daughter and The Witchfinder’s Sister
The layered clouds, gray as cold charcoal, shifted this way and that, mirroring the waves below. They obscured both stars and moon, and darkened the beach and the lane running alongside. Beyond the lane, in the field of standing stones, a handful of caravans circled a small fire. Firelight glimmered on the uneasy faces of the people gathered there, and reflected in the eyes of their restive horses. The invisible sea splashed and hissed, the only sound except for the crackle of burning wood. The flames cast their wavering light over the menhirs, making the stones appear to move out of their centuries-old alignment, to sway and tremble like ghosts in the night. The child Nanette whimpered and buried her face in her sister Louisette’s rough skirts. The older Orchiéres glanced nervously over their shoulders, and at one another.
Two of the stones, collapsed on their sides in some unremembered era, formed a pit for the fire where a brace of rabbits had roasted, sizzling and spitting into the embers. The rabbits were gone now, their meat eaten, their bones buried in the ashes. One of the women stoked the fire, then stood back to make way for her grandmother.
Grand-mère Ursule, carrying a stone jar of salted water, walked a circle around the pit. She muttered to herself as she sprinkled the ground. When that was done, she brandished her oaken walking stick at the sky and whispered a rush of words. The clan watched in tense silence as she laid down her stick and reached into a canvas bag for her scrying stone. She carried it with both hands into the blessed circle, and lifted it into the firelight.
The stone was a chunk of crystal that had been dug out of a riverbank by the grand-mère of the grand-mère of Grand-mère. Its top had been rubbed and polished until it was nearly spherical. Its base was uncut granite, in the same rugged shape as when it emerged from the mud.
The scrying stone glowed red, flaring with light as if it burned within. It was a light reminiscent of the hellfire the Christians feared, and it reflected off Grand-mère Ursule’s seamed face and glittered in her black eyes. Nanette lifted her head from her sister’s skirts for a peek, then hid her eyes again, sure the blazing stone would burn her grandmother’s hands.
Ursule crooned as she turned the stone, seeking the best view into the crystal. Her eerie voice made gooseflesh prickle on the necks of the watchers. She was the greatest of the witches, inheritor of the full power of the Orchiére line, and watching her work struck awe into the hearts of even those closest to her.
The men shifted in their places and worriedly eyed the lane leading from the village of Carnac. The women clicked their tongues and drew their children close in the darkness.
All the clan were fearful this night. Word of another burning had come to the ears of the men when they went into Carnac-Ville to buy beans and lentils. Nanette had heard them tell the tale, though she didn’t fully understand it until she was older.
It had taken place in the nearby city of Vannes. It was said that one Bernard, a young and ambitious priest, had tracked down the witch. He took it upon himself to examine her for the signs before he denounced her in the public square. The archbishop, eager to be known as a burner of witches, had set the torch to the pyre with his own hand.
There was great excitement over the news of this burning in Carnac-Ville. The Carnacois applauded when Father Bernard, a man with sparse red hair and eyes too small for his face, appeared in the marketplace. Nanette wanted to cover her ears when Claude, having returned in haste from the town, told the story, but Louisette pulled her hands away. “You need to hear,” she said. “You need to know.”
“They say he hates witches because of his mother,” Claude said.
“Why?” Louisette asked.
“She had a growth in her breast, and died in pain. Bernard accused the neighbor— a crone who could barely see or hear—of putting a curse on her.”
Grimly, Louisette said, “There was no one to protect her.”
“No one. They held one of their trials, and convicted her in an hour.”
“Did they burn the poor thing?” Anne-Marie asked in a low voice.
Claude gave a bitter laugh. “Meant to. Bernard had the pyre laid. Stake ready. The old woman died in her cell the night before.”
“She probably wasn’t a witch at all.” Louisette pulled little Nanette closer, absently patting her shoulder. “But he feels cheated.”
“Been hunting witches ever since.”
A grim silence settled around the circled caravans. The day was already far gone. The salt-scented dusk hid the ruts and holes of the lane, making it unsafe to travel before morning.
It wasn’t safe to stay, either. They were only three men and five women, with a handful of children and one grandmother. There would be little they could do against a bloodthirsty mob.
The Romani had always been targets, and were always wary. When the blood fever came upon the people, when they were overcome by lust for the smell of burning flesh and the dying screams of accused witches, there was neither law nor reason in the land.
“We should leave,” Paul, Anne-Marie’s husband, said. “Move south.”
“Too dark,” Claude growled.
Louisette nodded. “Not safe for the horses.”
They all understood. There was nothing left for them but to rely on Grand-mère.
* * *
The old woman swayed in the firelight. Her cloud of gray hair fl uttered about her head. Her wrinkled eyelids narrowed as she gazed into the scrying stone. She resembled a menhir herself, craggy, timeless, inscrutable. Her thin lips worked, and her voice rose and fell as she recited her spell. The gathered clan shivered in fear.
After a time Grand-mère’s chant died away. She stopped swaying and lowered the crystal with arms that shook. In a voice like a violin string about to break, she said, “There is a house.”
“A house?” Nanette lifted her head to see who was speaking. It was Isabelle, the most easily frightened of the six sisters.
Louisette put up her hand to shush her. “Where, Grand-mère?”
“Beyond the sea,” Ursule said. “Above a cliff. Long and low, with a thatched roof and broken shutters. A fence that needs mending. A hill behind it, and a rising moor.” Her eyelids fluttered closed, then opened again to look around at the faces in the firelight. Her voice grew thinner. “You must go there. All of you.”
“But Grand-mère,” Florence said. “How will we find it?”
“There is an island, with a castle on it. It looks like Mont St. Michel, but it isn’t. You will pass the island. You must go in a boat.”
The clan sighed, accepting. When Ursule scried, there was no arguing. Even four-year-old Nanette knew that.
The old woman sagged back on her heels, then to her knees. Her head dropped toward her breast. Nanette stirred anxiously against Louisette’s side, and her eldest sister shushed her. They waited in the chill darkness, listening to the murmur of the ocean and the occasional stamping of one of the horses hobbled among the stones.
Sometime near midnight the clouds above the beach drifted apart, admitting a narrow beam of moonlight that fell directly onto the circled caravans. It gleamed on painted canvas and hanging pots and tools, and shone on the clan’s tired faces. Grand-mère shot upright with a noisy intake of breath, and glared at the break in the cloud cover.
She commanded, “Put out the fire!”
One of the men hurried to obey, dousing the flames with a bucket of seawater kept handy for the purpose. When a child’s voice rose to ask why, Grand-mère said, “Be still, Louis. Everyone. Silence.” She reached for her canvas bag and covered the scrying stone with it. She got stiffly to her feet and bent to pick up her stick. She held it with both hands, pointing at the slit that had opened in the clouds. She murmured something, a single emphatic phrase that sounded to Nanette like “Hide us!”
Everyone, child and adult, gazed upward. For a long moment there was no response to Grand-mère’s command, but then, lazily, the clouds began to shift. They folded together, layer over layer, healing the break as if it were a wound to be closed. No one moved, or spoke, as the light faded from the painted canvas of the wagons. The fire was nothing but a mound of ash smoking faintly in the darkness.
As the Orchiéres’ eyes adjusted, their ears sharpened. The sea grew quiet as the tide receded from the beach. The wind died away. Not even the horses seemed to breathe. Gradually their straining ears caught the muffled tramp of feet on the packed dirt of the lane, and the voices of people approaching.
“ Grand-mère,” one of the sisters murmured. Nanette thought it was Anne-Marie, but she sometimes got them confused. She was by far the youngest of the six sisters, and the only one who had never known their mother, who had died giving birth to her. “Shouldn’t we—”
Grand-mère Ursule was tiny and bent, like a doll made of leather and wood, but everyone knew her fierceness. She gripped her stick in her gnarled hands and whispered something under her breath, words so soft only those closest to her could hear. One last spell.
Mother Goddess, hear my plea:
Hide us so that none can see.
Let my belovèd people be.
Louisette clamped a hand over Nanette’s mouth so she would not cry out as a deep shadow, more dense than any natural darkness, enfolded the campground. The footfalls of the approaching people grew louder. Some cursed when they stumbled. Some prayed in monotonous voices. One or two laughed. They reached the curve in the lane that curled past the field of menhirs, and the Orchiéres froze. The older children huddled close to the ground. The men braced themselves for violence.
The townspeople in the lane trudged along in an untidy crowd. They drew even with the campsite, with the dark sea to their left and the standing stones to their right, and walked on. Their steps didn’t falter, nor their voices lower. They marched forward, a mindless, hungry mob in search of a victim, all unaware of the caravans resting among the menhirs, and the people crouching around a cold fire pit. It took five full minutes for the Carnacois to pass beyond the hearing of the clan.
Not till they were well and truly gone did the Orchiéres breathe freely again. In careful silence they signaled to one another and retreated to their caravans to rest while they could. The men murmured in one another’s ears, arranging a watch. The women tucked their children into their beds and lay down themselves, exhausted.
But Grand-mère Ursule remained where she was, her stick in her hands, her eyes turned upward to the sky. She stood guard until the moon set behind the clouds. She held steady while the slow dawn broke over the rows of standing stones.
No one heard the sigh of her last breath when she crumpled to the ground. The man whose turn it was to watch was focused on the lane. The women, her granddaughters, slept on beside their children, and didn’t know she had left them until they rose in the chilly morning.
It was Nanette who found Ursule’s old bones curled near the fire pit, her hair tumbled over her face. The little girl shook her grand-mère’s shoulder, but there was no response. Nanette put out her small hand and brushed aside the mist-dampened mass of gray curls.
Ursule’s eyes were closed, her mouth slightly open. Nanette touched her cheek with a tentative palm. It felt cold as old wax. Nanette sucked in a breath to cry out, but Louisette appeared beside her, catching her hand and pressing it.
“Chut, chut, Nanette. We have to be quiet.”
“But Grand-mère!” Nanette wailed, in a small voice that died against the surrounding stones. “We have to wake her!”
Louisette bent over the still figure, then straightened with a heart-deep sigh. “No, ma petite. We can’t wake her. Grand-mère is gone.”
“Where did she go?”
“I can’t say that, Nanette. None of us can.”
“I want to go with her!”
“No, no, ma petite. You can’t do that. You have to go with us.”
Louisette signaled to her husband, and he came to stand beside her, looking down at Ursule’s frail body. Her stick lay beside her in the damp grass. The scrying stone was cupped against her with one arm, as if she had died holding it.
“We’ll have to bury her here,” Louisette said.
“Hurry,” her husband said. “We need to go.”
Nanette watched them wrap Ursule in a quilt from her caravan. Her grand-mère never complained, or tried to push them away, even when they covered her face. The other two men brought shovels and began to dig in a space between two of the menhirs. Louisette called Florence to take Nanette away to her caravan to pack her things. When they emerged again into the brightening day, Ursule and her quilt had disappeared. A mound of gray dirt marked the place between the stones.
Nanette turned to Louisette to ask what had happened, but her eldest sister’s face was forbiddingly grim. The question died on her lips. She clutched her bundle of clothes, blinking away tears of confusion and loss.
The clan unhobbled the horses and smacked their hindquarters to send them running. They abandoned the caravans where they were, leaving them in their colorful circle in the field of standing stones. With their most precious possessions packed into bags and stuffed into baskets, they started away on foot. Louisette had charge of the crystal, and had packed Ursule’s grimoire along with her own things. Nanette would learn later that her grandmother’s staff had been buried with her, because no one else had the power to use it.
The Orchiéres left their grandmother, the great witch Ursule, resting alone with none but the deathless menhirs to guard her shabby grave.