Taïga is back at boarding school again after two long happy months passed in Italy with her mother’s new family. This will be a transitory year in French High School, where soon they will have different teachers in each different subject. She is used to it since school in Vulturu and more than happy that they will only have Madame Bonnet in mathematics from now on. She wonders who their homeroom teacher will be, sending a quick prayer that it won’t be the strict Madame Bonnet like last year. She apprehends another year with Louise and Clotilde, even though she has promised herself to stand up to them and don’t let them put her down like last year. She is strong, her grandmother said so. She did not really tell Granny everything that happened last year, somehow feeling like it was her fault and that her grandmother would be disappointed in her…
Granny stays at St Simon’s during the afternoon to fill in the necessary paperwork and meet with her teachers, then she leaves for a night at the Auberge du Vieux Relais before flying back to Romania. Taïga suspects that she will have dinner with the headmaster, but it is not really her business. She tries not to cry when Granny leaves, but it is hard. Even harder than last year because now she knows what to expect. She has seen Clotilde briefly with a thin horsey woman that must have been her mother, and Louise was let off by a chauffeur.
She drags her feet walking towards the main entrance where her class is assembling. Clotilde and Louise are excitedly chatting away with Marie-France and not taking any notice of her. She stops and looks around, hoping the teacher will show up soon so she won’t have to stand around on her own for too long. She is startled to hear someone call her name. She looks around her to see who it could be but is not very surprised to see that it is Henri Fournier. He’s waving at her, breaking free of the little group of boys he has been talking to. Louis St Clair is also there. He nods at her and smiles, but he stays with the others. She smiles back, blushing at the sudden attention.
‘Salut Taïga!’ Henri kisses her cheeks twice. ‘As-tu passé des bons vacances?’
Taïga nods, puckering her mouth in the air in response to his greeting. ‘Great! How about you, Henri?’
‘Trop courts, bien évidament!’
She nods again in agreement. Decidedly she’s not the only one who thought the summer had been way too short. She listens to Henri’s detailed description while her eyes search for Jeanne and Agnès.
Agnès and Jeanne stops to kiss Eveline and Charlotte’s cheeks before coming over to Taïga and Henri. Taïga thinks all this kissing is rather annoying, but she complies, knowing it is as natural to the French schoolkids as it is to just shout “hi” and wave where she comes from.
Jeanne is clutching her stomach and grimacing.
‘Are you all right?’ Taïga asks.
‘Oui. Just a little nervous.’
Taïga is surprised at the usually so brave girl’s answer, but doesn’t have the time to develop as weasel face has finally become aware of her presence.
‘Tiens, tiens, tiens…’ Clotilde crosses her arms over her thin chest and raises her voice a notch. ‘Louise – the gypsy has decided to show up for another year.’
Louise turns around, letting her sentence trail as she looks Taïga over with hooded blue eyes. Marie-France glares too.
Taïga swallows. She is hypnotized by the cold glares raking over her. Henri has not noticed anything going on, he is busy catching up and joking with Jeanne and Agnès.
Suddenly someone calls out, ‘They are coming! Hurry to line up!’
Taïga can see the little group of teachers through the huge windows and breathes out. She is safe, at the moment.
The kids hurriedly form a long straight line facing the stairs. Taïga makes sure to put as much distance between herself and Clotilde as possible, taking up position next to Jeanne. The late summer sun’s rays break through the clouds as the teachers welcome the pupils back to St Simon’s after the long summer. She is relieved to hear that Mademoiselle Béjart is their homeroom teacher, but it stresses her a little to get the new schedule with very long schooldays. Most days they start at 8:30 and finish as late as 5 p.m.
Taïga also discovers she has been “promoted” to a new, smaller and more intimate dormitory. Unfortunately she will have to share the new room that still smells faintly of paint with Eveline and Charlotte, not with Agnès and Jeanne as she secretly had hoped. At least she is not paired with Louise and Clotilde, but they are not far down the hall and they share the same bathroom.
As soon as their things are unpacked they suspend their posters on the wall over their beds. Taïga just has her calendar with horses, and she hangs it on the little hook provided. She hurries after Charlotte and Eveline to the bathroom, a knot in her stomach at the prospect of finding herself face to face with Clotilde or Louise. But the number of wet towels hanging on the wall shows the other girls have already showered.
She sits down on the edge of her bed, looking at Charlotte’s posters with famous singers and Eveline’s detailed map of the moon. Her roommates have demonstratively settled on their beds and started reading, showing with their body language that they don’t want to talk. Taïga sits there a few moments more, dangling her feet. When it is clear the two girls are intended on freezing her out, she slides under the blanket and concentrates on trying to fall asleep…
After a whole summer of trying to persuade her grandmother to let her change art for music, it is her mother who finally signs the papers. She will still have to finish the art cycle started last year, but only two hours a week. That means she doesn’t have to spend so much time with her ancient tormentors. Just having to sit in the same classroom for French, history and maths will be hard enough.
Together with Jeanne she takes violin lessons with Monsieur Karajanian. The artistic and impulsive master of music is not very patient. He speaks English with such a thick French accent she hardly understands him at all and maybe he thinks he has to mime to illustrate his words. But the exaggerated grimacing and wild gesturing that makes Jeanne laugh scares Taïga a bit.
She goes through a lot of trouble trying to imitate his gestures, but the violin is an extremely difficult instrument, and even after a few weeks she has not progressed much. Neither has Jeanne. She is not suited for music at all, and Taïga can’t help but wonder why her parents have insisted on keeping her at St Simon’s. At the same time she is glad, because Jeanne is not afraid of Clotilde and never hesitates to infuriate Louise and her mean bestie. Sometimes Taïga thinks that Jeanne only hangs with her to have a reason to get into a dispute with Clotilde, but at the same time the sturdy redhead seems to genuinely like Taïga.
Taïga is more apt for the piano, which comes naturally to her. She painstakingly learns to read music, but thinks it is easier if someone plays the part before so she can hear what it is supposed to sound like.
She loves listening to Louis St Clair play. His hands fly over the black and white ivory, bringing forth melodies with incredible virtuosity and feeling.
Louis not only plays the piano but is an excellent student, a good athlete and he is really charming and fun to be around. The girls hang on every word he says.
Louis is best friends with Tristan de Lévis-Mirepoix, who is a sort of aristocrat – just like Louis himself and arrogant Philippe de Montvilliers but also like Clotilde and Louise. Tristan is the black sheep in their class – he cares more about having fun than studying, and there is always something going on around him. He is not particularly gifted, or if he is, he is too lazy to put any effort into anything study related. HRH Prince Fahd Al’Hafed Bin Hakim and Tristan have become really good friends as they share the same ideas of the world in general and of their future in particular.
Boisterous Tristan and snobby Philippe are daunting, Taïga never knows what to answer Tristan’s jokes and she only wants to disappear when Philippe looks at her down his long noble nose. Fahd is OK, he is just annoying her most of the time, rambling on about himself. At least he’s talking to her once in a while.
Louis looks at Taïga a lot, and smiles, and sometimes he winks at her. But since their first encounter they have not really talked. She is too shy but has overcome the disappointment of him never caring to speak to her a part from in class. Tristan has started teasing and pushing him when she is around but she doesn’t know if he and his group are laughing at her behind her back as everybody else seem to do.
Louise and her clique have taken up position in the corridor where everyone has to pass to access the classrooms, and Taïga hesitates to walk by.
‘What are you waiting for?’ Jeanne is catching up with her.
‘There’s no hurry, we still have five minutes,’ Agnès says, taking Taïga by the arm.
Jeanne flanks her other side and chatting about the upcoming camping trip, they start walking towards their classroom. Taïga doesn’t look straight at the giggling girls to avoid a confrontation.
Louise keeps her eyes on her as they approach. She has appointed herself Louis’s girlfriend but the way the other boys are teasing him when Taïga is around is starting to get on her nerves. Before Taïga arrived there were no problems at all – she had her clique consisting of all the girls in the class who did her bidding without asking questions. Except Jeanne, who is a real tomboy anyway and prefers playing with the boys. Now Taïga is becoming friends with that unbearable Jeanne, and even mousy Agnès also gives the impression she likes her. In fact, they both seem to prefer the dumb gypsy girl to her, Louise. And Henri spends a lot of time with them, too. She knows from Eveline that he doesn’t like the way they are treating Taïga. As if it mattered. Someone has to put the stupid girl in her place, making her understand she has nothing to do here.
Louise follows Taïga with her gaze as the three girls walk past.
Clotilde is whispering something about Taïga that makes Eveline giggle. Eveline is best in class and has helped Louise with her homework since they started at St Simon’s in 1st grade. Actually she is doing Louise’s homework for her, anxious to please the uppity girl. Fat Charlotte is giggling, too, even though she didn’t really catch what is so funny. She is blissfully siding with the bullies, being scared of becoming bullied herself.
Louise snorts contemptuously and glares at Jeanne over her shoulder.
As usual Taïga is at a loss for words, she just blushes and wrings her hair nervously as she hurries past first Louise’s clique, then the boys who start pushing and shoving Louis meaningfully as she approaches.
Jeanne does the exact opposite. She turns around at the ruckus and answers their jokes in machinegun-fast, and thus totally incomprehensible – French. Catching Louise’s eye she sticks out her tongue.
‘At least I have a brain!’ Jeanne shouts across the hall, answering the half spoken remark intended for Taïga who didn’t get the pun anyway.
Louise answers something angrily and equally incomprehensible involving a few swear words Taïga understands. Agnès stops and tugs at Jeanne’s arm.
‘Never mind her. Let’s go.’
Nobody sees Mademoiselle Béjart arrive, but the surprised students disperse rapidly. Only Clotilde finds herself blocked by their hometeacher and is forced to explain about the bad language used without getting herself – or Louise – in trouble.
Within the framework of traditions and heritage, Traditions et Patrimoine, they have several castles and churches to visit during the upcoming year. But traditions are also culinary and sports so the week before the autumn holidays, Taïga’s class leaves for a hike in the forest with Monsieur Lefebvre who will introduce them to a particularly old and popular sport – “la pétanque”. They will spend a few days in the countryside, sleeping in tents and exploring the forest and the river Sauloise. They will also hike up to the infamous Mont Corbeau, and picnic there.
The campsite has already been installed by the academy’s two handymen but the class will bike the whole way there and they are very excited about their outing, pairing up for the tents but also for the tournament of pétanque. Taïga has never heard of the game before, but it sounds fun enough. To their dismay the teachers have already decided about the tents and Taïga will share hers with Jeanne. Poor Agnès finds herself paired with Marie-France. Both girls complain, but to no avail.
After biking for about 3 hours, they arrive at the picturesque setting by the river Sauloise. The tents look all the same, small, two places only, and split into two circles around the campfires.
Monsieur Lefebvre and Mademoiselle Béjart hand out leaflets with the worksheets they are supposed to fill in during the week. They start on the first part, filling in what they have already learnt in class. Agnès finishes quickly, trying to plead her cause concerning the tents again but their home teacher is adamant.
Taïga feels guilty about it, even though it is not her fault Agnès and Jeanne were separated. She thinks Mademoiselle Béjart might have done it on purpose, with Jeanne around the other girls will probably leave her alone. At least she hopes they will.
She feels she has to ask Agnès if she wants to change, but her friend just shrugs. ‘It will be OK, really. I’ll never leave you in a tent with one of Louise’s clique, you should know that!’
Taïga is so overcome with emotions she almost hugs Agnès. Maybe this year won’t be as terrible as the last one after all.
They remain at table for lunch – a rice salad with olives, ham, tomatoes and pickles that Agnès explains is called Niçoise. Taïga loves it but Fahd complains. He has a version with chicken instead of ham, and immediately starts on separating the pickles, that he hates, from the rest of the compact salad. For dessert they have yogurt and seasonal fruits, which this late in September still consist of grapes. Small, sweet, black Muscat or tiny, translucent Chasselas that all the children devour.
After lunch Monsieur Lefebvre introduces them to “la pétanque”, giving a short lesson about the origins of the sport and then having them fill in yet another side in their booklet. Then he takes them to an open, flat space on the campground where there are already some gleaming metal balls called boules, laying on the ground around the little red jack. He asks them to line up facing each other. Naturally the girls line up facing the five boys.
‘Good,’ Mademoiselle Béjart says, throwing a meaningful glance at Monsieur Lefebvre. ‘You are going to play in teams of two – with the person right in front of you.’
The kids look at each other over the empty space, automatically searching out who they are teaming with. Taïga is second in line, so is Louis. She would have preferred Henri, who she knows, or even Fahd. Louis looks a little confused too, especially as Tristan leans over behind Fahd’s back to say something that is rewarded by a halfhearted punch and and a ‘Shut up!’.
Eveline raises her hand. ‘But who will I play with?’ she asks. ‘There are only five boys and we are eight girls.’
Monsieur Lefebvre answers, ‘You will play with Clotilde.’
Both girls throw each other dark glances.
Charlotte grimaces. ‘If I don’t team with Eveline, I don’t want to play at all!’
‘I can play with Louise,’ Clotilde add.
‘Why should you play with Louise?’ Eveline asks.
‘Because I’m her best friend, of course. ‘
Eveline leans forward, looking at Louise. ‘Let her choose who she wants on her team!’
‘C’est bon!’ Monsieur Lefebvre says sternly, putting an end to the beginning squabble. ‘We have decided and this is the way it is going to be done. That’s all!’
‘When do we start?’ Jeanne asks, ‘How many boules do we get each?’
Charlotte grimaces. ‘The boules are heavy, and I hurt my wrist playing basketball last week…’
‘I know. That is why we thought you could help us keep the score and be the official measurer.’ He hands her a tape measure and little notebook.
Mademoiselle Béjart starts calling out the teams:
‘Jeanne and Philippe, Taïga and Louis, Agnès and Fahd, come with me. Marie-France and Tristan, Louise and Henri, Clotilde and Eveline you stay here with Monsieur Lefebvre…’
Both groups are soon trying out the game. Taïga thinks it’s incredibly boring. All this talk about shooting and pointing was only about throwing boules at a red target ball. She has never been good with balls, and these are not only round and rolling everywhere, they are also very heavy. Mademoiselle Béjart insists on the security, not letting the children approach before all of them have thrown their boules.
Taïga tries to aim at the little red target ball, the jack. It is called cochonnet in French which means piglet, and that makes her laugh. She can’t see the point in throwing heavy metal balls on a poor little piglet.
Mademoiselle Béjart is a little disappointed in Taïga’s obvious lack of enthusiasm. She smiles bravely at Taïga, encouraging her to keep on trying.
But she can’t get close to the jack at all, and when she does, someone always succeeds in knocking her boules away with one of theirs.
Louis cheers her on, encouraging her even when she knows her throw was extremely bad. Luckily for them he is quite good, but even his skills can’t compensate for Taïga’s clumsy attempts.
Fahd is totally uninterested. The usually so competitive boy considers the game boring and unworthy of his interest. He prefers teasing Agnès while his bodyguard checks the surroundings. Gradually the tall dark man lets his guard down, enjoying the sunny weather and nice view. If they stay here for the duration of the outing he’ll be able to see anyone coming. It will be completely different to watch over his charge when they hike to Mont Corbeau…
Jeanne gets the gist of it very fast, and so does Philippe. They admit at the end of the week that they have already played with their parents and grandparents…
It is pleasant but despairing to see them hold the boule with the hand downwards and then expertly flick the wrist when they throw it, sending the heavy metal object spinning through the air and heavily land with a puff of dust close to the cochonnet.
At the end of the week they spend a whole day playing a tournament and Jeanne and Philippe are unstoppable. Of course, they win. Taïga and Louis finish 5th out of six pairs– only Fahd and Agnès do worse.
Louis, Henri and Philippe continue playing for fun to see who is best, and they carry on until late that night.
It’s the third time Taïga sleeps in a tent – first camping with Derek, then Easter Camp in Vulturu and now in France. It is early October, but it feels like a warm September day. The weather probably won’t last, though. It is fall after all, and an extremely rainy period in this region of France. They sleep in their pajamas in warm duck down sleeping bags, and Taïga loves it. She has always liked having the window open a notch, but can’t do that at school, as her roommates are typically French and prefer a warm bedroom. Overheated in Taïga’s opinion.
They mustn’t let trash lay around, there are unwelcome visitors at night. She thought they were talking about grizzly bears, as in Bigwood Falls, but she found out the first morning what they had been warned about. Henri surprises a raccoon, which gives Monsieur Lefebvre the opportunity to give a lecture about how the animal was introduced in France by members of the U.S. Air Force, who released several pet raccoons near the Laon-Couvron Air Base in 1966…
The food is delivered by a little Renault truck directly from the academy. The little cooking is on a camp kitchen where they heat water for the dishes and warm their hot chocolate in the morning.
They have also done some grilling over the fire pits – sausages, but also beef and chicken brochettes with tomatoes and peppers.
Taïga initiates the French kids to the succulent sticky taste of grilled marshmallows. Clotilde is the only one who refuses to taste, pretexting that she can’t read aloud from Victor Hugo’s “Notre Dame de Paris” if her mouth is full off disgusting American goo. Well, it is her loss, Taïga thinks, loading more sticky American goo into her mouth.
The grownups are usually hanging around the campfire until late. Taïga thinks it is reassuring to listen to their low voices, not catching what they say but just getting lulled to sleep by the melodious sound.
They are up at sunrise on the fourth day. After following the river for a kilometer or so, they cross it on an old wooden bridge that for sure is only made for pedestrians. It is not only narrow, but also rickety, at least in Taïga’s opinion. She can imagine how the people used it hundreds of years ago.
The whole idea of the annual camping trip is about cohesion. To bring the class closer together and is usually a gamble that pays off. The kids always grumble in the beginning when they aren’t allowed to choose teammates, but mixing the teams is a good idea and at when they start out on the hike to Mont Corbeau the last day, it is a happy group that sings along the whole way on the rather difficult way up the steep hill.
She can feel someone looking at her and raises her head. She can hardly distinguish Fahd’s bodyguard against the rich canopy. He has advanced them to check out the terrain and is standing at the edge of the mountainside, looking down at them winding their way up.
Fahd’s bodyguard waits until the little group of chattering kids pass before jogging past them all, checking out the rest of the path.
‘What is up there?’ she asks Jeanne and Louise who are walking with her.
‘I don’t know, I’m not from around here. Some old ruins of a castle, maybe,’ Jeanne says.
‘Mmm. Or an old monastery or something.’
‘Yeah, they always built everything high up, to be close to heaven.’
‘Or to see their enemies from afar,’ Henri adds. ‘There was always some war going on.’
She feels a strange apprehension grow as they approach the summit on the winding path. She shares her apprehension with Agnès and Jeanne, but it is Clotilde who answers her from a few paces behind.
‘It must be her gypsy blood spooking,’ the weasel faced girl says. ‘We are walking the witches’ path after all.’
‘Uh-huh,’ Louise answers, grabbing her friend’s arm and shuddering. ‘Luckily we got rid of that bunch of evildoers… But now the place is known to be haunted, n’est-pas?’
‘And it is said that the witches recognize their pairs. Maybe you should be extra careful up there, Gypsy!’
‘Oui. Parfaitement, an accident is always prone to happen in such an awful place.’
‘Are you threatening her?’ Jeanne throws over her shoulder.
‘Non. We are cautioning her. N’est-pas, Clotilde?’
‘Bien.’ Jeanne turns around and stares the two girls down. ‘Because, as you said, accidents happen.’
‘No ghosts will keep me from finding the jackalope,’ Fahd boasts, running backwards and gesticulating.
Tristan and Louis laugh. ‘The jackalope is for us!’
Eveline skips up to Monsieur Lefebvre and Philippe at the front.
‘What’s up with the jackalope? What is that?’
‘I see the boys couldn’t keep the secret, huh?’
‘Fahd is always blabbering,’ Philippe adds. ‘It was supposed to be a secret.’
‘Oui. We are going on a treasure hunt this morning,’ Monsieur Lefebvre says. ‘I will explain everything once we are at the top.’
‘Why did you tell the boys?’
‘Parceque – because,’ he answers curtly and Eveline stops, seething. She quickly catches up with them again and continues pestering Monsieur Lefebvre until he tells her the about the horned hare that supposedly had seen the day in the deep forests surrounding Mont Corbeau.
After a long hike they finally arrive at the top of the little mountain. They follow Monsieur Lefebvre towards a giant oak tree in the middle of a clearing where they all settle in a half circle, their backs to some stones and a giant tree.
A giant dead oak tree. Its naked branches stretch and twist tortuously towards the light blue sky, giving a menacing tint to the sparse fluffy clouds.
What was that? Suddenly Taïga’s apprehension transforms into a terrible fear, and she stops, faking a stone in her shoe.
The branches seem to come alive. Creaking, they bend towards her and a low murmur reaches her ears and fills her head.
Chareexa. Chareexa. Chareexa…*
The murmur gets more insistent. It mixes with the wail of women pleading. Children weeping. A crowd roaring. A cacophonous din.
Images flash before her eyes. Thin, malnourished women being beaten, raped, tortured. Blood everywhere. Grimacing men and women looking on with anticipation and cruelness. She can feel the stench of fear transfer from the scene. Seeping into her. Taking over her.
She forces her eyes open.
It is night. Chased by the wind, clouds pass quickly in front of the full moon. Its stark light illuminates the darkness in irregular intervals. Her hair blows in front of her face and she pushes it away, shivering in the cold.
The silence after the roar of the crowd is almost palpable.
A soft creaking comes from behind her and the faint rustle of dead leaves when she slowly turns around seems to echo all over the little clearing. A shapeless figure is on their knees a little further away, rocking back and forth in rhythm to their heartbreaking sobs.
Taïga looks up from the mist swirling around her feet and to where she can see three bodies hang from a simple gallow. They swing slowly, turning on themselves to the strained creak of the rough ropes. Three women. Three generations.
The fourth nose is empty.
*Old French: a person who throws magic spells
‘Mademoiselle Grey, hurry up and sit down with the others.’ Monsieur Lefebvre’s voice snaps her out of the vision and a little breathless she sits down between Henri and Jeanne.
‘What happened here?’ she whispers.
Henri is eager to tell her all he knows about the thrilling events that had taken place here hundreds of years ago.
‘In the 17th century, witches were burnt here on the stake, the most powerful of them are Morgan Le Fay and a beautiful woman with raven hair… Lady Ravensinger!’
‘Dancer,’ Taïga interrupts him. ‘Her name was Lady Ravendancer.’
‘How do you know? It’s singer, because she had a voice that enchanted everyone – just like a siren!’
‘I’m sure her name was Ravendancer… And you’ve got the dates wrong, too.’
‘You are. Morgan le Fay was King Arthur’s sorceress and they lived in the middle ages. In England!’
‘OK for the Middle Ages, but-’
‘-she was a fairy, not a sorceress,’ Eveline interrupts. Now quiet! I can’t hear what Monsieur Lefebvre is saying about the competition.’ Eveline looks at her brother with irritation radiating off her.
‘… so pair up, please. I think Taïga and Henri are already a team – you can continue your passionate discussion while you search for the jackalope.’ Monsieur Lefebvre’s voice is dripping with irony.
Eveline jumps to her feet and brushes dry grass off her skirt. Charlotte follows her lead, anxious to be left behind, but Monsieur Lefebvre holds his hand up with his palm out stopping the girls.
‘Wait a minute! Sit down again, Eveline. I have not said the hunt has begun, have I?’
Eveline sits down again, glaring grumpily at her guffawing brother.
Monsieur Lefebvre throws himself into a passionate tale about the origins of the horned hare, about German and Swiss folklore exported by migrants to the United States.
‘They don’t even have their own monsters,’ Clotilde whispers, throwing meaningful glances at Taïga.
‘But they do,’ Mademoiselle Béjart says. ‘Ever heard of Bigfoot?’
‘He doesn’t exist,’ Louise snorts.
‘Neither does the jackalope,’ Eveline says, immediately regretting having corrected the touchy girl.
If there had been an ounce of hesitation who Louise would team up with, Eveline’s comment confirmed her choice. She throws her arm around Clotilde and asks Monsieur Lefebvre sweetly when they would set off searching. Clotilde looks triumphantly at Marie-France and Eveline who both would have liked to be chosen by popular Louise.
‘As soon as I have finished,’ he answers, looking sternly at the girls. He continues with a long parenthesis about papilloma virus that can cause horn-like tumors to grow on a hare’s head.
Taïga tunes him out. She thinks about what she saw, or what she thought she saw. Somehow she knows the executed women were witches, and they were killed right here. She shivers. It feels like she had really been there with the poor women, witnessing their plight …
The earth she is sitting on tells her about it. The old tree tells her about it. Even the stones behind her tells her about it and it makes her hair stand on end. She glances up at the tree, looking right into the black eyes of a raven. It croaks and flaps its wings before taking off. Raven. Corbeau in French…
‘… and the old woman and her daughter tried to cure the epidemic. Thing is – they succeeded. There has never been any case of papilloma virus in these woods ever since the dark ages.’ Monsieur Lefebvre nods grimly before continuing. ‘But their success became their fall when the righteous people of the nearby village accused them of witchcraft.’
Witchcraft? Taïga snaps back to attention.
‘But they had cured the rabbits!’ Agnès exclaims. ‘So unfair!’
‘Ah, but the village priest said they had created the monstrous animal, inspired by the devil himself. Now you know what you are looking for. Off you go!’
The children scatter all over the high plateau, searching through the bushes and turning over stones, but the jackalope has been well hidden.
Taïga and Henri continue discussing witchcraft animatedly having different views on the matter. Henri is totally sceptic, and even a little prejudiced concerning the Catholic Church’s involvement.
He comes from a very religious family, and defends the Church’s position, even though in Taïga’s opinion the witches were persecuted because of their skills, not because they were evil. He must surely see reason if she explains to him. But then she realizes that she can’t. Not without giving away her secrets. She can hear Granny’s voice insisting on not using magic nor even mentioning magic this year. She had sounded really serious, and Taïga had promised, intending on keeping her promise this time.
‘Viens voir! You should see this!’ Taïga approaches the edge, where Henri is waiting for her.
The view is breathtaking. Green hills are rolling as far as the eye can see and the river Sauloise is peacefully meandering through the lush nature, reflecting the pale blue sky.
‘I’d love being able to paint this…’ Taïga says wistfully.
Henri points to a brownish roof in the hazy distance. ‘There’s the Academy… Can you see it?’
‘It looks like a doll’s house.’
‘Yeah. Can you imagine when it was just a hunting cottage and these woods were roamed by wolves and wild boars. There were even bears. Can you believe that? Now there are only deer and wild boars…’
‘Yup. And a jackalope!’ Taïga jokes.
They are interrupted by an incredible ruckus from just behind the dead tree.
‘Hey come and see!’
‘We have found it!’
Tristan jumps up on a fallen trunk, balancing precariously as he uses his hands as a megaphone to shout out that they have won.
Fahd is on his knees retrieving something from the darkness inside the large trunk.
Henri and Taïga do as the others. They set off in a sprint towards the three boys to see what the jackalope looks like.
Taïga is a little disappointed at the sight of the wooden, 2D, sculpture. She wonders what would happen if she brought life to it…
The boys keep their trophy next to them as they spread out red and white checkered cloths and dig into the picnic. They have watermelon for dessert, an extra treat that has been grown in the academy’s greenhouse, and sausage rolls, hamburgers with cold chicken and other fingerfood. The teachers share their picnic with Fahd’s bodyguard, and Taïga is surprised to see the dark man talk and laugh. He seems really nice, not as intimidating as before. Louise’s clique are installed far enough from Taïga and her friends for her to relax and enjoy her meal.
The little group of children picnics happily, speculating about the monstrous events that had taken place hundreds of years ago. They switch over to tall tale stories about various French scary monsters like the Cheval Mallet (the evil horse), the Beast of Gévaudan, Mélusine – the mermaid lookalike, and other Gargouilles and Dames Blanches. Taïga contributes with Bigfoot and werewolves, but prefers listening to their stories about old sinister castles haunted by assorted spirits of kings and monks.
As the afternoon wears on, the shadow of the ancient tree’s branches seem to search and reach out for someone.
But its target is just out of range…
Back at school, Taïga can’t find her diary at its usual safe place under her mattress.
‘Are you looking for something?’
Taïga startles and hits her head on the bed, but it is only Eveline and Charlotte who have silently entered their room.
‘Monsters maybe?’ Eveline adds and both girls snicker.
Taïga scrambles on her feet. ‘Who took it?’ She looks accusingly at Eveline.
Eveline stares back. ‘Took what?’
Taïga glances at Charlotte who tries her best to look innocent.
‘My… My… Oh forget it.’
‘Good… False accusation is a serious thing.’
Taïga glares at them. She knows they must have taken her diary, but she also knows that to get it back she’ll have to wait for the right moment. It’s probably Louise who’s got it now…
She goes to bed and fakes sleeping until she’s sure the other girls are asleep.
Then she slips out of bed, and walks over into the little adjacent reading space in the tower. She spends the rest of the night staring into the night out of one of the many windows, trying to find a solution without using her powers.
Why not just erase the pages? It won’t hurt anyone. But, oh, how I would like to transform them all into frogs! Or disgusting toads…
The next day seems to never end. Louise and Clotilde snickers as soon as they see her, joined by Marie-France and Eveline. Charlotte seems on the way to say something, but she troops after her new clique, looking guilty.
‘Tout va bien?’ Agnès is kind, and Taïga breaks down and tells them about her missing diary. She leaves out her suspicions about her room mates, though.
But Agnès is smart. ‘I’m sure she took it! Eveline, I mean. Not Charlotte – she’s just hanging with the gang and saying yes to all they do.’
‘Uh-huh,’ Jeanne crosses her arms in front of her chest and frowns. ‘But it’s probably Louise who’s got it now…’ She turns her back on them and looks out the window, thinking hard.
Taïga sighs and hangs her head. If Louise has got it…
Agnès pats Taïga’s back. ’Don’t worry… We’ll get it back!’
Jeanne turns towards them. ‘During recess tomorrow, I will see to it Louise and Clotilde are busy, and you’ll sneak into their room and… Well, try to find it. Easy!’
Taïga dries her tears and the three of them finalize Jeanne’s plan…
Taïga and Agnès hurries to Louise and Clotilde’s room during recess the following day. They stop in front of the closed door, listening for a sign of someone. Agnès puts her eye close to the keyhole and verifies a last time before opening the door and quickly sneaking in.
The room is smaller than Taïga’s, but there are only two beds. Everything goes in different shades of pink and could have been nice if it wasen’t so messy – clothes on the floor, toys and books scattered as if they had just been dropped when the girls changed activities.
‘I’ll check the beds,’ Agnès says and starts to pull out the drawers in the nightstands.
Taïga looks around, and is instantly drawn towards the high dresser. ‘I’ll search the dresser.’
She pulls out the drawers one after the other and pats under the clothes, but the diary is nowhere to be seen. She backs off and scans the room. There is a box on the high dresser and she has to climb up on the first drawer to access it.
‘I’ve got it! Let’s get out of here!’ she whispers nervously.
Taïga fiddles with the diary, hiding it under her jacket. Together they hurry through the corridors back to class before the bell rings.
‘Mademoiselle de Lautrec et de Cosnac, dans mon bureau.’ The Headmaster has soundlessly shown up on the little balcony over the winter garden according to his habit. His voice is low but no one can be mistaken about the urgency of his request. The two girls immediately drop their brushes and scurries away to the administration offices wondering what the fuss is about.
They are surprised to find Marie-France and Charlotte waiting in the hall.
‘Eveline is already inside,’ Marie-France whispers. ‘Do you think it is about the diary?’
‘Of course not,’ both Louise and Clotilde snort at the same time, but they feel a little uneasy nevertheless. Especially as the Headmaster himself showed up to fetch them.
But it is about the disappearance of the diary and they are all punished for stealing it even though they firmly deny it… All of them, except Eveline, who felt bad about what she had done and got away by telling the Headmaster the whole truth about how Clotilde had got the idea and then Louise and Marie-France forced them to do it.
Having been slightly coerced by Jeanne the very same morning might also have added to Eveline’s decision to confess.
‘She will pay for this!’ Clotilde mutters, glaring at Mademoiselle Florence who is supervising their punishment.
The girls are assigned to mop the corridors leading to the sports hall and that are extremely muddy after the afternoon’s exercise outdoors.
‘Right. Taïga is a real pain,’ Louise whispers, refusing to touch the broom or helping Clotilde and Charlotte.
‘I was talking about Eveline.’
‘Oui. Eveline la traîtresse… Traitor.’
‘We cannot be sure it was Eveline who told Monsieur Lambert,’ Charlotte peeps.
Clotilde and Louise just stares at her.
‘I’m sure it was Taïga, not Eveline,’ Marie-France adds.
‘Mais oui, Taïga is behind all this,’ Clotilde stops mopping and looks at the three girls. ‘She must be punished.’
‘Silence les filles! Louise, you are supposed to help your friends…’ Mademoiselle Florence looks sternly at them until the four of them continue mopping.
Part I – End of Chapter 45