So today is the last day you can download The Jester’s Apprentice for free at Smashwords as a part of Read an E-Book Week! To entice you, read the first chapter below.
The night before her wedding, Philippa dreamt that she married a skeleton. He wrapped his cold fingers around hers and led her, her parents, and other wedding guests in a circle dance, moving faster and faster until she dropped from dizziness. He leaned over her and laughed as fire engulfed his empty frame, shooting out of his eye sockets. She awoke in a sweat, peering around the room until sure the skeleton wasn’t there. The world seemed very empty, and as Philippa’s eyes closed against her will, she fancied the skeleton’s face did resemble her future husband a little. She told herself as she drifted back to sleep that she would leave Ainsley Hall and all its unpleasant memories behind the next day – and never look back.
Philippa awoke again in her chamber on the morning of August 10, 1197, for the last time. The image of the skeleton staring at her still lingered. She lay there almost relishing the chill she still had from the dream until she remembered the wedding part of that vision was entirely real. Philippa turned and snuggled down into the crevasse of the feather mattress. She felt nervous despite wanting the marriage. Nervous because of everything that had happened previously and the memories still branded in her mind. Philippa prayed the skeleton was no foregleam of the future.
She wandered out of her private chambers and into the main hall, the scent of roasting boar luring her out of bed. The creature roasted on a spit, the smoke hanging in the air as the day grew warmer. Servants swatted at flies as open fires scorched the fowl and boiled the vegetables freshly picked from the garden. They curtsied and bowed as Philippa wandered through the main hall, a cramped room compared to what she had grown up with, and passed the wooden planks used for tables. White linens billowed and snapped as two young girls spread them on top. Philippa surveyed the work and smiled. Her preparations had gone a long way in smoothing out what work was left.
After making sure the wedding preparations were going well, Philippa retreated back into her chamber where her sister, Clare, helped her dress. Though her dress and arrangements were more modest than her first wedding, Philippa felt all the excitement and nervousness she missed before. She sat while one of the servants combed her hair, weaving flowers into the fair strands. Clare paced the room with her baby, cooing and stroking his head.
“I suppose in a year from now, I’ll be doing the same thing you are,” Philippa said.
Clare laughed. “We already had this conversation several years ago. And what you said never came true. Gratefully, I have to say.”
Philippa smiled. “I say it with joy and not terror this time.”
Clare sat on the edge of the bed near Philippa. “Things are now the way they should have been the first time,” she said, her dark blue eyes shimmering. “You will have years to get back the happiness you’ve lacked. I know Edric will see to that.”
Philippa closed her eyes. In her heart, she knew it too. Philippa fiddled with the hem of her burgundy dress, tracing the gold embroidery with her fingers.
“Still nervous?” Clare said.
“I know we’ve only waited mere months for this day,” she said. “But we both know we’ve actually waited longer.”
Clare placed a hand on Philippa’s knee. “You’re done waiting, Philippa. I promise.”
* * *
Philippa and Edric stood outside on the church steps as the priest blessed them. Edric placed a gold ring with a round ruby in the center on Philippa’s shaky hand and they walked to Ainsley Hall on the outskirts of the village. Philippa laughed as villagers tossed heads of wheat as they passed, the nightmare of her previous life vanishing for a moment.
Ainsley resonated with the sound of incoming guests. Philippa and her new husband and her father and siblings sat at the head table in the main hall of what would soon be her former home. Philippa and Edric shared the bread trencher topped with grilled quail and the goblet brimming with spiced wine. Her brother Simon threw pieces of boar to the dogs who sat patiently near the table. Below the hum of conversation, Philippa could hear a recorder playing. She longed to dance.
Edric turned to her, smiling as he lifted the goblet to his lips. Philippa gazed into his bronze face, the candlelight only illuminating his violet eye. Edric returned her pondering expression, keeping quiet while she thought. Her eyes always darted from his green eye to his violet eye and back, and she wondered if she would ever learn to look into them both at the same time. Edric suppressed a smile while she focused on his violet eye.
“Don’t look too long or I’ll bewitch you,” he said, his voice low and violet eye twinkling.
Philippa smiled mischievously. “Perhaps you’re saying that because you already have and want to divert me from the truth.”
“Some people would believe me.” Edric ripped a piece of the bread, drenched with broth. “In fact, some people have.” He grinned.
“Some people will believe anything. And you’re terrible to feed them such nonsense.”
“Do you like the ring?” Edric said, nodding toward the jewel on Philippa’s finger.
She started to protest his change of topics, but held out her hand to gaze at the ring instead. “It’s beautiful.” Philippa fanned out her fingers, admiring how the ruby’s facets lit up in the flickering light.
“It belonged to my mother.”
Philippa met Edric’s eyes and stroked his high brow with the tips of her fingers. He snatched them firmly and yanked Philippa out of her seat, leading her to the open floor in front of the white-clad tables. The musicians’ eyes lit up and they quickly changed their pace. Her older sister Clare dragged her husband behind them and soon the tables emptied onto the floor.
They skipped in a circle, round and round. Philippa closed her eyes as her chest pounded in time with the drum, sweat trickling down her spine beneath the layers of linen and silk. She lost herself to the rhythm, images of what the future held spinning through her mind. The music halted mid-step, and Philippa tripped and crashed into Edric. When she opened her eyes, servants ran into the hall and her father leapt from his seat. She broke from the circle as her cook jogged toward her, panting and sweating.
“The barn is on fire!” the woman screeched, grabbing Philippa’s arms.
Edric ran from her side on the heels of another servant. Philippa ripped away from her cook, the shrieks of several ladies fading as she toppled out through the kitchen entrance and dashed across the herb garden. Flames licked the night sky, her former hiding place an orange blaze. Several servants formed a line, hauling water from one end to the other. Edric and other male guests joined them, but Philippa watched the puddles they threw and knew it would never do.
She clambered between the two lines of water bearers, sparks flying out toward her. This was not how she expected the evening to end. Torn between fear and annoyance, she stood there letting the heat waves wash over her skin, mesmerized by how the air became visible in the heat.
“Get back inside!” Edric heaved water onto the fire, steam replacing the heat waves. His eyes pierced hers, some thought or knowledge etched into them.
Philippa tore her eyes from the blaze, blinking as she felt her way in the darkness. She rested a cheek against the cool stone of her house and watched them try to put out the fire in vain. She could hear the cook whispering in the kitchen behind her.
“Look what’s happened!” she said. “My cousin said he was on the rise, and here’s the proof.”
“You don’t know that,” another servant hissed. “Homes catch on fire all the time.”
“Doubt if you like, but I know the Jester’s work when I see it. I was there you know, when he burned down the master’s old home. I saw his grinning face disappear into the woods. And now this and our mistress going her way to where it all started.”
“Hush before someone hears your nonsense and takes you seriously. It’s just a fire, nothing more.”
“Are you all right?” Philippa jumped, riveted by the servants’ conversation. Clare stood behind her, her eyes feverish. “It’s mass chaos inside.”
“It’s nothing to worry about,” Philippa said blankly, leaning her back against the house. “The fire’s contained.”
Clare leaned next to her. “Are you worried about the repairs? The animals?”
Philippa half-smiled. “I have more than enough to replace both. That’s not the problem.”
Clare tipped her head to the side. “If this catastrophe isn’t on your mind, what is?”
“Osbert. It’s silly, but this just reminded me of him.”
Clare followed Philippa’s line of sight back to the barn, steam mixing with the smoke as another bucket of water hit the fire. “He’s gone now. And all of his brutality with him.”
“I know. But I still remember though I’ve tried my best not to.” Philippa looked away, her heart racing in her chest. She did remember. Remember the day her husband Osbert died only too well. Even a year later, it was as clear as if it had happened yesterday.
Clare placed a hand on Philippa’s shoulder. “Fire or no fire, the memories will fade once you leave here.”
Philippa smiled, but somewhere in the back of her mind she knew this was only the start.
* * *
Like a ghost floating through the halls, Philippa wandered the rooms and out buildings and gardens early in the morning. She smiled to herself, forced to admit not all the memories were worth forgetting. She and Edric had spent hours talking as they ambled around the estate in the time before and after her marriage to Osbert when Edric was only Osbert’s squire, a knight-in-training. Edric’s company had cushioned the realities of her new life. She was sixteen at the time, a sort of gift to Osbert, her father’s old comrade from the crusade. Nearly ten years had passed since then, but it felt much longer.
Servants acknowledged her silently, the previous night’s fire squashing the merry mood of the wedding. She felt their eyes watch her curiously, perhaps imagining what she thought on her last morning there. She felt oddly solemn for a day she never thought would come. She would no longer flit about that manor, overseeing and directing its goings-on. At least, not as personally as only its owner, but no longer its tenant. She hoped the new mistress of Ainsley would leave with happier feelings.
She felt drawn to the barn, examining the soot coated stones, the smoky smell still clinging to the air. She walked around to the side, her father apparently doing the same as she. He smiled, the bags under his eyes practically enveloping them. He looked as if he’d slept even less than she did. Philippa curtsied, reluctant to stay. She was too deep in her own thoughts for conversation.
“At least it was the barn and not the house,” he said, glancing behind him at the manor. Though she’d said something similar to Clare the night before, it didn’t comfort her at all coming from someone else.
“It seems I’m leaving none too soon regardless.” Philippa caught his eyes. She didn’t direct that at him, but from his expression, that’s how he took it.
“I know what Clare thinks of me for all of this,” he cocked his head in the manor’s direction, “but you’ve never said a word.”
Philippa took a deep breath and faced him squarely. “What’s done is done,” she said. “Osbert is gone and I’m now married to another man. I’m putting it all behind me.”
Philippa pursed her lips, quelling a shiver of anger that rose from her gut. “I’m curious to know what you think of Edric.” She swallowed, trying to focus her attention on better thoughts. “You’ve never said a word either.”
Her father shrugged. “You’re a wealthy widow now and I’m happy to stay out of the way and let you do as you please. Edric seems a nice enough fellow. A brave knight certainly from what I’ve heard of his crusading days. If he suits you, I’m sure he suits the rest of us as well.”
Philippa noted he didn’t say ‘me’ in that sentence. She drew away, anxious to put it all behind her literally.
Edric and Philippa stood in front of the household later. Clare smiled and squeezed her hands, and Simon bear hugged her. Her father offered a tight smile, kissing her forehead. She stood back, wondering what he truly thought of the new circumstances. They had stood in that position before, but this time Philippa had made her own choices. Whatever he felt, she doubted she would ever know.
She hugged Ralph, Ainsley’s devoted steward, her eyes suddenly tearing at leaving him behind. A new master was coming in, a young knight and his wife, but she would miss his doting terribly. Ralph bowed his tall, slender form, his wrinkled face stoic except for his eyes, glazed over with unshed tears.
Philippa gazed at the modest stone manor with its tower and fenced-in garden, beautiful but wrapped up in too many bad memories. They mounted the ponies and rode away, Philippa looking behind her as long as she could see the peak of the manor roof.