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After Grand-Mere Ursule gives her life to save her family, their magic seems to die with her.
Even so, the Orchires fight to keep the old ways alive, practicing half-remembered spells and arcane rites in hopes of a revival. And when their youngest daughter comes of age, magic flows anew. The lineage continues, though new generations struggle not only to master their power, but also to keep it hidden.
But when World War II looms on the horizon, magic is needed more urgently than ever — not for simple potions or visions, but to change the entire course of history.
Praise for A Secret History of Witches:
"I loved it. A beautiful generational tale, reminiscent of Practical Magic. . .. Grounded and real, painful and hopeful at the same time." —Laure Eve, author of The Graces
"Historical fiction at its absolute finest….Deliciously absorbing." —Boston Globe
"At once sprawling and intimate, A Secret History of Witches deftly captures the greatest magic of all: the love between mothers and daughters." —Jordanna Max Brodsky, author of The Wolf in the Whale
For more from Louisa Morgan, check out:
The Witch's Kind
The Age of Witches
Nanette shook the pony's reins and clucked at him. He sped into a trot, but not for long. He soon settled back into his usual walk. The jingle, empty now of the vegetables and cheeses Nanette had sold at the Saturday market, rattled against the stones of the cliff road. Nanette shifted anxiously on the bench seat, chafing at the slowness of the journey, but she didn't reach for the whip. She had trained this pony herself. Whipping only made him rebellious. To pass the time she recited the major and minor Sabbats. The pony's ears twitched with interest as he plodded on.
By the time the thatched roofs of Orchard Farm came into view, the sun had begun its descent beyond the peak of St. Michael's Mount. The Cornish wind bit through Nanette's coat and homespun dress. She was cold, tired, and worried. When Claude emerged from the byre to take the pony's reins, she could barely manage to nod to him.
"Good day?" he asked, speaking French as always.
In irritation she answered in English. "The priest was there."
He lifted his brows at her. "Prêtre?"
"Priest. Priest! I know you understand that much English!" She jumped down from the jingle and stamped around to the back to unload the empty baskets and folded bags.
"Seventeen years old you are, to my forty. Show some respect."
She sighed and switched to French. "Yes. The priest was there. That priest. Bernard."
Claude didn't answer, but his customary scowl deepened as he led the pony away.
Nanette hurried up through the garden and let herself into the porch. She stacked the baskets beside the door and went on into the kitchen. The house was warm, and the scents of pottage and fresh bread made her stomach contract with hunger, but she hardly noticed.
Anne-Marie was bent over the stone sink, scrubbing a pot. She glanced up, saying, as Claude had, "Good day?"
"No." Nanette sagged into a chair, feeling as if she had carried home the weight of the world.
"What's wrong?" Louisette came to the door of the pantry, a dish of butter in her hands. She was the eldest and the tallest of all the clan, even the men. She had a man's voice, and she often spoke like one. She frowned at Nanette.
Nanette propped her chin on her fist and glared back. "Aside from the fact that I'm the only one of this family who speaks the language of this country?"
Anne-Marie said in her mild way, "Pierre speaks English."
"He's gone, though, isn't he? And George, and Louis. Left as soon as they could get away, and left it all to me." No one responded, and Nanette wished she could snatch back the words. Her older sisters had mourned their children's leaving, as she knew very well. Their sons had fled, one to Scotland, one to Ireland, and one back to Brittany, which had proved disastrous.
Fleurette brought a bowl of pottage and set it before Nanette. She rarely spoke—sometimes Nanette wondered if she still had a voice—but she touched her little sister's shoulder with a forgiving hand. Nanette gave her a wan smile. "Désolée," she murmured. It wasn't fair to be cross, though she was exhausted. Her sisters had been both mother and father to her for as long as she could remember. She knew they were afraid, and they had reason. She had grown up hearing the stories of the burning times.
Louisette said, "Nanette. Tell us what happened."
"The witch hunter was in Marazion."
The sisters glanced at one another, and tension filled the room with darkness, as if the wood stove had belched a gout of smoke.
The Orchiéres had found the farm Ursule had prophesied, every detail just as she had described. The voyage had been a misery, but the boat had deposited them on a rocky beach within sight of St. Michael's Mount, a miniature imitation of Mont St. Michel. They found the farmhouse nestled at the foot of a boulder-littered tor, with a moor stretching beyond it. The place was in such poor repair as to be uninhabitable, and no one objected when they took possession. They spent months making the farmhouse livable, the garden productive, and the byre safe for livestock.
It had been a sacrifice, settling down. The Orchiéres preferred the road, new scenery every season, hidden places where they could practice the old ways undisturbed. In Cornwall the older Orchiéres left it to the younger ones to learn English, and such bits of Cornish as they needed. For the first ten years, the clan had felt safe in Cornwall.
Then, three years before, Bernard had appeared. He put it about that he had been sent to establish a Catholic parish in Penzance, but the truth was that the priest was still hunting witches. The clan had no need of Ursule's scrying to tell them so, and that was a blessing. Ursule's magic was lost to them.
"You need to eat," Louisette said to Nanette. "Then you can tell us." She pulled up a chair on the other side of the table, and rested her elbows on the scarred wood.
Nanette obediently took a spoonful of pottage, and then another. Despite everything, she was hungry, and the soup was good, flavored with summer sage and pepper. She knew Fleurette had dipped out the largest chunks of meat she could find, and she smiled at her again. Florence carved a slice of bread off the loaf and slid the butter dish close to her hand. While Nanette was eating, the men came in, and the women served them. No one spoke until they had all finished.
"Enough?" Louisette asked.
Nanette sat back. "Yes, thanks."
Nanette brushed bread crumbs from her fingers. "He spoke to me."
"Did he?" This was Anne-Marie, the second eldest of the sisters. She was the calm one, but even her face was tight with alarm.
"He watched me all day, even when I was chatting with my friend Meegan. When I was harnessing the pony, he walked right up to me, in front of everyone."
All of Marazion knew that the Orchiéres never attended the Anglican service at St. Hilary Church. Everyone would have noticed Bernard, in his rusty black cassock and flat-brimmed hat, speaking to someone from Orchard Farm.
"What did he say?"
"He quoted Scripture."
"'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,'" Louisette said in a toneless voice.
"No. It was different." Nanette rubbed her windburned face. "He said something about 'a man or woman with a familiar spirit, or who is a witch, shall be put to death.'"
Florence said, "We don't keep familiars."
No one responded. It was pointless, because the witch hunter wouldn't care. When Louis, Isabelle's only child, had returned to Brittany, Bernard had found him and beaten the clan's location out of him. Isabelle didn't know if Louis had lived or died.
"He knows our farm," Nanette said. "He said we should take care on the cliff road, since we don't have God's protection."
"A threat," Louisette said.
The rest sat in silence, absorbing Nanette's grave tidings.
Nanette sipped at the mug of honeyed goat's milk Fleurette brought to her. She could have said more. She could have told them how the witch hunter's empty eyes made her stomach clench, how his sour breath reminded her of the very devils he prated about. She could have said she would just as soon convert and get it over with. That would make Meegan happy, and she might make other friends.
But she was tired, and, now that her stomach was full, sleepy. She didn't want to talk anymore. She longed only to take off her heavy boots and close her burning eyes.
The wick of the oil lamp was trimmed short, and the kitchen was comfortingly dim. One of the men lit his pipe, sending the sweetness of applewood curling to the rafters. The low ceiling of the farmhouse, with its thickly thatched roof, felt as cozy as an old quilt. Nanette wanted to go to her bed, to bury her face in her pillow of goose feathers, to forget all about the man who hated them so much he had pursued them across the Channel. Who had thrown a string of beads at her, daring her to pick it up, hoping it would burn her fingers.
She should, of course, have ignored it, but she hadn't. She had picked up the string and dropped it into her pocket, just to prove she could.
She drank off the milk, murmured her thanks to Fleurette, and rose from the table. She said, "Bonne nuit," to the room in general.
Claude put up a weathered hand. "Attendez. You women," he said. "No more rites."
Louisette turned to her husband. "Pourquoi?"
"He spies on us. He and that other priest, the one from St. Hilary. Not safe."
"No one sees us when we climb the tor."
"A peddler might ride by. A neighbor come to call."
"Pfft! Neighbors never come to call."
Claude's rocky features didn't change. "Don't argue."
Louisette pursed her lips, stood up, and left the table in a stony silence. The others, Anne-Marie, Isabelle, the spinster twins Florence and Fleurette, dropped their eyes.
Nanette shrugged, too tired to care. She plodded off to her bedroom at the back of the house, where she closed her door, kicked off her boots, and stripped off her clothes, letting them lie in a pile on the floor. The beads were still in the pocket of her skirt, forgotten in her exhaustion. She was half-asleep before she slipped her nightdress over her head.
When Louisette's hard hand shook her, she was in the midst of a nightmare. She was driving the jingle along the cliff road, with the sea on her right, and the lethal drop to the rocky beach below. On her left was only the empty moor, and behind her, coming up fast, was the witch hunter. She couldn't see him, but she knew he was there. She couldn't get the pony to run. Her hands ached with gripping the reins, and her legs twitched with the need to hurry, while the pony plodded on and the witch hunter came closer and closer. In her dream Louisette's hand became the hand of the priest falling on her shoulder. She startled awake on a shriek of terror.
Louisette clamped her fingers over her mouth. "Quiet!" she hissed. "They'll hear you."
With a shudder Nanette came fully awake. Louisette's grip loosened, and Nanette whispered, "Who? Who will hear me?"
"Claude. Paul. Jean."
Louisette plucked Nanette's dress from the floor and thrust it at her. "We're going to the temple. If Claude knows, he'll stop us."
Nanette sat up. Beyond her window, stars glittered in a windswept sky. The early frost of approaching Samhain rimed the edges of the glass. Nanette shivered as she wriggled out of her nightdress and back into her clothes. Louisette found a pair of stockings and held them for her. In the darkness her eyes were like black stones.
Nanette shivered again and whispered, "Why, Louisette?"
"We're going to try a spell of diversion."
"Pfft! Men know nothing of the craft."
With her boots in her hand, Nanette padded after her sister, down the dark hallway and out through the kitchen. On the porch they found the others waiting, so shrouded in scarves and coats Nanette could barely tell them apart. She thrust her feet into her boots and chose a coat at random from the rack of pegs. Someone—she thought it was Isabelle—pushed a woolen scarf into her hands, and she wound it about her neck as the sisters filed silently out through the side door and into the garden.
The climb up the tor that was so familiar in daylight was treacherous in the dark. The stars' uneven light glistened deceptively on the stones of the path. The brambles that curled beside it were all but invisible, and threatened to trip the marching women. Anne-Marie led the way, with the twins behind her. Isabelle, carrying a basket with the new candle and jar of salted water, walked in the middle. Nanette came after Louisette. She trudged wearily upward. The goats would be bleating to be milked in only a few hours. She wanted to complain that she didn't see the point of doing this, or that it could have waited for Samhain, but she kept those thoughts to herself. When Louisette set her mind on something, arguing was a waste of energy.
Louisette was the one, when they took possession of Orchard Farm, who had found the cave at the top of the tor. It was an echoing space with a narrow entrance, well hidden by towering chunks of tumbled granite. The sisters had swept away the feathers and bones and gravel that littered the floor, and appropriated a three-foot stalagmite that erupted from the center for their altar. They used rock outcroppings as shelves for their supplies. Ursule's crystal rested on the altar, covered with a piece of homespun linen.
For years they had observed the Sabbats in the cave, which they called their temple. They followed the rites Ursule had taught them, referring to the ancient grimoire for simples and potions. They lit a new candle, sprinkled salted water, burned the proper herbs. They wore ceremonial scarves, and stood in a swaying circle around the scrying crystal.
Not once, since her initiation into the craft, had Nanette seen the crystal respond in any way. She doubted tonight would be any different.
When Nanette was still small, she had begged her older sisters to be allowed to climb the tor with them. Louisette said, over and over, "Not yet. Not yet," refusing to explain. Nanette even tried once asking Claude, but he growled at her, as if he were a dog and she were a bothersome kitten. It was his only answer.
Fleurette had found her voice that day. "Men don't understand," she said, with a touch of her hand, but she offered no other explanation.
Nanette eyed the tor from time to time, wondering if she dared climb its twisting path alone, if she could find the temple by herself. She could have, she supposed, but she was busy from dawn to dusk with chores, or the market, or having to translate for her family with the farrier, or the ragman, or the men who came to buy ponies. It remained a mystery as she grew to be ten years old, twelve, fourteen. Then, on the day of her first blood, Louisette gave her a wolfish grin across the kitchen table. "Aujourd'hui," she said. Today.
"Today what?" Nanette asked plaintively. Her belly hurt, and the sight of her own dark blood on her clothes when she rose that morning had made her feel queasy. Florence had fitted her out with a homemade clout of homespun. She hated it. It chafed her thighs and caught on her skirt when she sat down.
Louisette leaned forward. "Today you can go to the temple."
Nanette stared at her. "Aujourd'hui? Pourquoi?"
"Because now you're a woman!"
"This was what I was waiting for, all this time?"
"Couldn't you have told me?"
"And argue about it? No. This is what the craft teaches." Louisette pushed up from the table. "We'll go as soon as the sun sets."
Despite feeling unwell, Nanette was thrilled when she first set foot inside the temple. The climb up the tor had been chilly, but the boulders that marked the entrance to the cave blocked the wind. Suddenly much warmer, she stood gazing in wonder at the granite walls, the niches here and there holding stoppered jars and lumpy baskets. In the center of the cave an upthrust cylinder of granite held something covered with cloth so old it was crumbling to bits. When she caught sight of it, a shape both mysterious and promising, her neck prickled and her aching belly quivered.
"Ursule's crystal," she murmured.
Anne-Marie, a broom in her hand, nodded. "We'll uncover it in a moment."
"I remember it," Nanette said.
"I don't think you could. You were only four."
"I do, though. I remember. It glowed in her hands, and I thought it must burn her."
Anne-Marie began to sweep, shaking her head with a sadness Nanette didn't understand.
Her older sisters draped her in a scarf. They invoked the Goddess. They circled the scrying stone, their scarves rippling in the candlelight like starlit waterfalls. Isabelle's candle emitted a pure light that pushed the shadows far back into the stony recesses of the cave. The crystal glimmered, but only with reflected light. The bloody glow Nanette remembered never appeared.
It was full dark by the time they began their descent from the temple. Louisette and Anne-Marie carried oil lamps to illuminate the path. The men had left a light burning in the farmhouse, a beacon in the darkness. When they reached home, the men had gone to their beds, and the sisters gathered in the kitchen. Fleurette set about warming fresh goat's milk and stirring it with honey while the rest divested themselves of hats and boots and coats.
When they were seated, Nanette asked, "Am I a witch now?"
"You always were," Anne-Marie said. "But now you're an initiate in the craft."
"You have a lot to learn," Louisette reminded her.
Isabelle offered, "We'll teach you what we can," making Nanette raise her eyebrows.
A stiff silence stretched around the table as Fleurette poured mugs of warm milk and handed them around. When it seemed no one was going to explain what Isabelle had left unsaid, Nanette spoke up. "What did that mean? Didn't Grand-mère teach you the craft?"
"She taught us the three parts," Florence said. "Simples, potions, and spells. Spells are beyond us now. We are left with only the minor talents."
"I thought the power was passed down from mother to daughter."
"It should be," Louisette said. "But our mother had no gift, other than for producing daughters." She sounded irritated, but Nanette knew that was because she was unhappy. "Anne-Marie has a small gift for charms, which is why her soaps sell well at the market. Fleurette is good at simples—things to help you sleep, or ease your back when it aches."
Isabelle said, "And sometimes I dream things that are true."
"Aren't those things part of the craft?"
"Oui, oui." Louisette cradled the mug between her big hands. "But none of us have the power Ursule had. Florence and I have nothing at all. The crystal doesn't respond to any of us. None of us can work spells."
Nanette said, with the innocence of a fourteen-year-old, "Have you tried?"
Every eye turned to her, and she saw the bitter truth in their faces. They had tried, and tried again. They had done all the ceremonial things she had just witnessed. They had followed their grand-mère's path as best they could. Profound disappointment clouded the atmosphere in the kitchen and reflected in the dark eyes of the sisters.
"Why do you keep on?" Nanette asked.
"It is our heritage," Anne-Marie said. "Our birthright."
Isabelle sighed. "We thought it might be different for you."
"You were our last hope," Anne-Marie said.
"Yes," Louisette said. "But now our line will die out. We have only sons, of course. If you have no gift, either …" Her deep voice cracked, and this evidence of emotion shocked Nanette more than anything.
"You hoped the crystal would respond to me."
No one spoke, but she understood. They had tried to do everything right, waiting for the right time, saying the right words, following the traditions. They were disappointed in her, and as she realized it, the thrill of her first rite in the temple evaporated.
The years passed, and the sisters persisted. They celebrated all the Sabbats. They chanted to, and praised, and occasionally pleaded with the Mother Goddess. Anne-Marie blessed the little soaps she made in the vat in the laundry shed. Fleurette perused the grimoire afresh each season for recipes for the simples she stored in colored jars in the pantry. But the crystal, despite their last hopes for Nanette, remained dark and lifeless.
Florence said once, after one of the minor Sabbats, "It's our punishment."
Her twin gasped, but Anne-Marie shook her head. "I don't believe it."
Florence clicked her tongue. "We left her there. Just—put her in the ground, with no proper ceremony to speed her on her way."
Louisette snapped, "It's what she would have wanted! There was nothing we could do."
Isabelle said, "Our ceremonies aren't much good, in any case." No one argued with her.
Now, despite the men's objections, and with the witch hunter threatening them, the sisters gathered around their altar one more time. They uncovered Ursule's scrying stone, and began their preparations as always, but there was a heaviness in the air, and desperation in their demeanor. Fleurette had tears in her eyes. Her twin stayed close by her, as if afraid she might break down. Isabelle set the fat white candle next to the stone, and Anne-Marie laid their offering of dried thyme and rosemary beside it. Louisette finished the sprinkling and stood gazing into the dark stone, her expression as hard as the granite walls around them. The others watched her, waiting for her to begin the rite.
The long silence of the night was broken only by the whistle of the wind around the tor. Nanette breathed in the scents of thyme and rosemary and melting wax. She closed her eyes, comforted by the familiarity of it all, the protection of the cave, the presence of her sisters, even the solidity of the dormant crystal at the center of their circle. There was magic just in this, she thought, in this company, in this ritual, in their history.
Louisette still didn't speak. Nanette opened her eyes to see her staring at the stone, her narrow lips pressed tight. Anne-Marie whispered, "Is something wrong?"
Louisette gave a shake of her head, not in the negative way, but in the way a person does when she can't find words.
Isabelle said, "Do you want one of us to begin?"
Louisette expelled a breath and pushed back her scarf. "We have to do something different," she said in a harsh tone. "Something has to change, or we are lost."
"Goddess help us," Fleurette said, her little-used voice only a thread of sound.
At that very instant a sensation began in Nanette's belly. It reminded her of the way she had felt on the day of her first blood, achy and hot.
Her belly began to throb. The feeling swelled and rose, filling her chest, warming her cheeks, rushing into her brain. Her breathing quickened, and her hands, without her volition, extended toward the crystal. One of the sisters made a sound, but someone else shushed her.
Nanette stepped forward and laid her palms on the smooth quartz. She spread her fingers and looked between them into the depths.
The circle around her tightened, the sisters moving closer, leaning forward, pressing shoulder to shoulder.
Nanette didn't know where the words came from. She had listened to Louisette, and sometimes Anne-Marie, reciting prayers for nearly four years. She had always believed they came from the grimoire, that they were written down, but now …
Now words sprang into her mind, and she heard herself speak them in a steady voice.
Mother of All, your daughters pray
That you will lead the man astray.
Confuse his path and cloud his mind,
Make him as one fully blind.
She reached into her pocket and drew out the string of beads the priest had tossed at her. Her friend Meegan had one like it, a rosary, wooden beads and a clumsy cross strung together with cotton thread. Nanette was vague about its purpose, but she thought it must be some sort of ritual object, like the candles and herbs and scarves she and her sisters used. She clumped the beads in her palm and dropped them onto the flame of the candle.
The flame billowed up, twice the height of the candle, then three times. The beads blackened and burned, drowning in wax. The cross was consumed by the unnatural flame. Nanette's hands still hovered above the crystal, and as the beads burned, a glimmer of light shone in its depths, a shimmering spark that laughed up at her as if it had been awaiting this moment.
She watched the spark dance within the stone as the surface of the candle turned dark with ash, and the wick collapsed. Rapt, Nanette gazed into the crystal—the great Ursule's scrying stone—and felt its power surge through her body. The light faded slowly, reluctantly, but the tingle in her fingertips and her toes remained, as did the slight ache in her belly, the ache of energy and strength and purpose.
The ache of magic.
No one moved or spoke until Nanette drew a noisy breath, breaking the spell that mesmerized them. She stepped back from the stone and looked up at her sisters.
Louisette's head was thrown high, her eyes blazing with triumph. Anne-Marie's features were soft with wonder, and Isabelle pressed her two hands to her mouth. Fleurette's tears had fallen and were shining on her cheeks as they dried.
Florence blurted, "What was that?"
Nanette said, "A spell of diversion, as Louisette wanted. To turn the priest's attention away from us."
"That spell is not in the grimoire!"
Fleurette whispered, "Neither were many of Grand-mère's."
"But—but how did you know what to say? What to do?"
"She was inspired," Louisette pronounced, her baritone ringing against the granite walls. "As Grand-mère was." She regarded them all with blazing eyes. "The Orchiére line continues after all!"
The sisters made their stealthy way down the tor and into the house. They had to forgo their usual honeyed milk for fear of waking the men. Each of them crept to her bed in silence.
- "A beautiful generational tale,reminiscent of Practical Magic if it had been set in various time periods, but much more expansive in scope. Grounded and real, painful and hopeful at the same time."—Laure Eve, author of The Graces
- "Historical fiction at its absolute finest....Deliciously absorbing."—Boston Globe
- "At once sprawling and intimate, A Secret History of Witches deftly captures the greatest magic of all: the love between mothers and daughters."—Jordanna Max Brodsky, author of The Wolf in the Whale
- "Fresh and unpredictable.... [Morgan] depicts with visceral impact the roles of women in a male-centered world."—Historical Novel Society
- "A moving multigenerational saga about strong women who work behind the scenes to save the world from tyranny. A deeply satisfying and magical work of great craft."—Carol Goodman, author of The Lake of Dead Languages
- "Epic in scope and heartbreakingly tender in its portrayal of mothers and daughters...Recommended for fans of Nora Roberts and readers of feminist fantasy."—Booklist
- "A Secret History of Witches examines the bonds between mothers and daughters, and the power of hidden magic to quietly save the world, particularly as the world braces for another global war."—Brit + Co
- "A Secret History of Witches is an epic family saga that speaks to the strength of all women and the difference that one true heart can make, not only for herself but for the world."—Marci Jefferson, author of Girl on the Golden Coin
- "Morgan's transportive words will sweep you away to a time of magic, love, and loss. Simply hold on and enjoy this mesmerizing ride."—Tish Thawer, award-winning author of The Witches of BlackBrook series
- On Sale
- Sep 5, 2017
- Page Count
- 496 pages