Discover the story of Ursule Orchière in this captivating prequel to A Secret History of Witches – a tale of family, witchcraft and love, perfect for fans of Practical Magic, The Witch’s Daughter and A Discovery of Witches.
1762, outside Carnac-Ville
Thirteen-year-old Ursule Orchière knelt in the shadow of the red caravan to watch her mother lie to people.
Agnes was very good at her job. Her dark eyes flashed convincingly, and she spoke with just the right amount of hesitation, of warning, and of promise.
Ursule’s responsibility, one she had shouldered since she was six, was to collect the payment after the readings her mother gave. The pretense was that Agnes, the fortune-teller, gave no thought to money. The truth was quite different, and Ursule had learned early that not a penny should escape her.
The customers would arrive on foot, or in a pony cart that rumbled along the rutted road from Carnac-Ville. They wound through the field of menhirs where the clan camped, gazing wide-eyed at the circle of scarlet and blue and yellow caravans. They shrank away from the narrow-eyed, bare-chested men, gaped at the women in their gaudy scarves, and sometimes smiled at the half-dressed children running about among the stones.
Ursule met these seekers in the center of the circle, beside the remnants of that morning’s cooking fire, and guided them to the red caravan where Agnes sat, shaded by a striped canopy, the Orchière crystal before her on a small table.
Often the customers glanced over their shoulders to see if anyone had followed them.
Ursule offered no reassurance. It was better if they were anxious. There was energy in their nervousness, in their fear of someone knowing they had come to have their fortunes told. Frightened customers never held back when it was time to pay.
Ursule added to her mother’s drama whenever she could. She had always been plain, but her eyes were large and black and thick-lashed, and she used them to good effect, producing a flashing glance that implied danger. Sometimes she spoke in rapid Romani, and the seekers thought she was speaking in tongues. At other times, kneeling at her mother’s side, she let her eyes roll back as if she were in a trance. Often she moaned, underscoring something interesting in her mother’s patter.
It was an act, and Ursule was good at it, but it was the crystal that convinced the customers. It was an ancient stone, a chunk of crystal dug out of a riverbank by the grand-mère of Agnes’s grand- mère. The top was smoky quartz, rubbed and polished until it was nearly spherical. Its base was uncut granite, the same rugged shape as when it emerged from the mud.
A generation had passed with none of the Orchières seeing so much as a spark in it. Agnes and her sisters swore that their grandmother could bring the crystal to life just by touching it. They widened their eyes and lowered their voices when they told the tale, claiming the crystal bloomed with light under her hands.
Ursule doubted the truth of this, and with good reason. The Orchières were notorious spinners of stories, even for their own family members. She suspected that her mother’s grand-mère had simply been more adept than Agnes at fooling everyone.
Her mother had devised a way to make the crystal appear to glimmer as she moved her hands across its cloudy face. It required a strategically placed lamp at her feet, a twitch of her foot to move her skirt aside, a practiced motion of her hands to hide the reflection in the crystal and then, at an opportune moment, to reveal it.
Agnes excelled at reading her customers, if not at scrying in the crystal. She gave them a flood of rosy predictions, marring the optimistic future with just enough bad news to make it all seem real. The seekers handed over their money, for the most part, without demur. If they didn’t, they learned how fast Ursule could run and how loudly she could shout.
Today a townswoman had come with a friend, the two of them clinging together for courage. They were dressed in traditional Brittany fashion: dark fabrics, with white scarves over their bodices and lacy aprons. They rolled their eyes this way and that, sniffing at the odors of cooked hare and boiled beans that hung over the encampment, eyeing the bright, ragged dresses of the Romani. They lifted their skirts to avoid the dirt of the camp, and shrank away if any of the grimy children came too near.
After Ursule seated the customer on a stool opposite her mother, Agnes told the woman’s fortune, at great length. When the two women turned to leave, she called out to the other one. “Wait, madame! I have a message for you, too!”
Ursule lifted her scarf across her face to hide her smile. There would be two fees today. She was ready to add her persuasive touch to the process, but it turned out there was no need. The second woman turned back and took the stool opposite Agnes, eager to hear what her own future held. She listened openmouthed as Agnes predicted a sudden stroke of good luck that would bring money into her house. Agnes followed with a warning about being careless with the money, because someone was watching her, someone not afraid to steal. The woman nodded and cast a meaningful glance at her friend, as if she knew just who that would be.
Ursule collected the double fee and watched the two satisfied customers hurry off toward the village, arm in arm, giggling together over the success of their reading.
Her uncle Arnaud appeared at her elbow, holding out his broad dirty hand for the coins. She dropped them into his palm, and he scowled. “Where’s the rest?”
Ursule blinked. “Uncle Arnaud, what do you mean? That’s the payment.”
“This isn’t enough,” he growled. “What did you do with it?”
“Me? I did nothing!”
“They cheated you, then.”
She hung her head to hide the gleam of her eyes. “If they did, I didn’t know it, Uncle. Perhaps I counted wrong.”
“You, count wrong?”
It was a preposterous claim for her to make, of course. Everyone in the clan, no matter how odd they thought Ursule to be, acknowledged her talent for numbers. They called her clever when they wanted to flatter her, or when they needed her to translate from their patois to French or Breton. When they were angry, they said she didn’t know how to keep her place, that she should stop showing off, that she should leave business matters to the men. For those reasons and more, Ursule hugged to herself the greatest secret of her young life. Even her mother didn’t know.
She could read.
The Orchière clan, like the other Romani who traveled the roads of Europe, was illiterate. It was part of their identity. Their tradition. Reading, in their way of thinking, was unnecessary. Uncle Arnaud said it was better to learn from your ancestors than from foolish words some stranger had written. Books were for churchmen or landowners, collections of words used to oppress the peasantry, and the Romani with them.
The Romani left drawings of bears or boar on trees or standing stones to mark their passing. They sang or recited their family histories. They counted on their fingers, or made slash marks in the dirt to tot up what was owed to them or what they owed. To be a reader, Ursule had always understood, was to be a rebel. To offend the traditional ways. To risk being isolated even more than she already was.
Ursule had been just three years old when she realized that the letters on shop signs or in advertising posters spoke words to her, as if the writers of those letters were whispering their meaning in her ear. Her cousins mocked her because she didn’t talk until she was five years old, but that turned out to be a blessing. By the time she began, she realized the letters that told her so much meant nothing to her mother or her aunts or uncles. She couldn’t recall ever learning to read. It was simply there, the way her uncle Omas had always been able to play the harp, and Aunt Genève always knew how long to roast a hare. It was her gift, but she knew better than to reveal it.
Her clan already viewed her as a misfit, first because she had been silent for so long, and then because, when she did begin to talk, she spoke like a miniature adult. She refused to learn to sew or cook, and preferred to be alone rather than gossip with the other girls. The boys mocked her, trying to make her cry, but she refused. She was small, but her fists were hard and quick.
She was eight when she discovered there was a book in the Orchière camp. It was a single, real book, and it was in her very own caravan.
She had gone to fetch the scrying stone before a reading. When Ursule knelt down to pull it out from beneath her mother’s bed, a random beam of sunlight exposed an object unfamiliar to her, a rectangular shape wrapped in burlap and tied with a strap. She believed she knew every bit and bob of their meager possessions. Surprise and curiosity drove her errand from her mind as she pulled the thing out into the light, untied the strap, and peeled back the burlap.
It was the first real book she had ever held in her hands, heavy and old and smelling of dust and ink. Ursule lifted the top cover and saw the first parchment page, the top written in French in a trembling script, with three illustrations of herbs decorating the bottom. She gingerly riffled the pages. There were dozens of them. She could hardly breathe with excitement over the treasures it must hold.
“Ursule! What are you doing?”
Ursule gave a start that made her drop the book with a thud. A little cloud of ancient dust swirled from it, tickling her nose with the promise of secrets within. “Daj, I—”
Agnes fell to her knees beside her and began hurriedly rewrapping the big book. “Never touch this!” she said. “Never ever. Promise me!”
“Why?” Ursule plucked at the burlap, but Agnes slapped her hand away. “Daj!” she cried. “You never told me we have a book!”
“And you can never tell anyone else, Ursule. It’s dangerous.”
With decisive motions, Agnes rewrapped the burlap and tightened the strap that held it all together. She bent to shove it as far under her cot as it would go.
“But, Daj, what is it? Where did it come from? Why do you hide it?”
Agnes settled back on her haunches, her skirts pooling about her feet. “Bring the stone, Ursule,” she said tightly. “I have readings to do.”
“Tell me!” Ursule demanded. She took the scrying stone into her lap and covered it with her arms. “I’m not moving until you do.”
Agnes’s hand rose again, but when Ursule didn’t budge, she made a wry face and lowered it. “I will tell you, daughter, but only if you promise never to tell anyone.”
“I promise,” Ursule said. “But tell me!”
“It’s called a grimoire,” Agnes said. “It belonged to my grand-mère, and her grand-mère before that, and even more grands-mères before her.”
“Why is it called a grimoire? What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. My maman couldn’t read it. She kept it hidden, and we have to do that, too.”
“Witch hunters,” Agnes said, spitting out the words as if they burned her mouth. “A grimoire is a book for witches. A book of witchcraft. If they see you looking at it, they might think you’re a witch.”
“I’d like to be a witch,” Ursule said.
“You’d like to be burned alive?” her mother hissed. “That’s what they do if they catch witches. They burn them, and stand around laughing while they scream!”
The fear in her mother’s voice, even more than the ghastly images, made Ursule shudder. She never said it again. She never told anyone there was a book in her caravan. And she never looked into the grimoire—unless she was certain her mother would not find out.
Her uncle Arnaud said now, “Turn out your pockets, Ursule. Quickly!”
She did, tugging out the frayed fabric of her pockets to show they were empty. One had a huge hole in it, and she spread it open with her fingers so her uncle could see.
He glared at her for a long moment. “If you are stealing from us,” he began.
Ursule promptly broke into a convincing bout of tears, and Arnaud, grunting, shoved her away from him. She stumbled back, sobbing.
“Stop that!” Arnaud snapped. When she only cried more loudly, he swore and said, “The sooner Agnes finds you a husband, the better! You need to settle down!”
“I don’t even have my monthlies yet, Uncle!” Ursule wailed.
“Well—well—hurry up with them, then!” He gave her another push, and she ran, stuffing her pockets back into her skirt.
Her mother was waiting, holding open the flimsy door of their caravan. She glared at her brother as Ursule jumped past her, up the step and inside. Agnes looped the rope lock behind her.
The lock was symbolic. Arnaud could break in easily if he wanted to, but long ago Agnes had sworn if he ever bothered her or her daughter in their own wagon she would put a curse on him. He never set foot in her caravan after that. Women had very little power, but they were known to cast terrible curses.
Ursule plunged her hand through the hole in her skirt pocket so she could fish the extra coins out of the posoti sewn into her drawers. She held the money out on her palm, all pretense of tears gone. “Double, Maman.”
Agnes snatched up the coins and jangled them in her fist. “Well done, daughter! Well done.”
“I need a new dress. This one barely reaches my calves, and the others laugh at me.”
“I know they do. I’m sorry.” Agnes turned to the old cracked jar she kept hidden behind a curtain and poured the coins into it. “Arnaud is right about one thing, though. You’re going to need a husband soon.”
“I don’t want one.”
“What does that have to do with it?”
“I’m only thirteen!”
“I was thirteen when I was wed to your father.”
“And what a mistake that was,” Ursule said. “Married to an old man. Widowed before I was born. Dirt poor your whole life.”
“Well,” her mother said with a shrug. “We’re all dirt poor. And widowed is not so bad. I make my own choices.”
“I’m going to make mine, too, and marrying some lout of a blacksmith or a basketmaker is not one of them.”
“Ursule,” Agnes said, shaking her head but smiling at the same time. “You speak like a woman of eighty.”
“Born old,” Ursule said. “You’ve said that often enough.”
“Yes. You had no childhood.”
“It would be over now, in any case.”
“I am sorry for that, little one.”
Ursule shrugged. “It doesn’t matter.”
Her mother blew out a breath and began taking off the beads and scarves she wore for telling fortunes. “You’ll have a new dress. We’ll buy fabric when we get to Belz.”
“Are we leaving Carnac- Ville already?”
“Your uncles say we must. The witch burners are about again.”