New York Times bestselling author Melanie Dickerson beautifully re-imagines “The Goose Girl” by the Brothers Grimm into a medieval tale of adventure, loss, and love.
“When it comes to happily-ever-afters, Melanie Dickerson is the undisputed queen of fairy-tale romance, and all I can say is—long live the queen!” —JULIE LESSMAN, award-winning author of The Daughters of Boston, Winds of Change, and Heart of San Francisco series
She lost everything to the scheme of an evil servant.
But she might just gain what she’s always wanted . . . if she makes it in time.
The impossible was happening. She, Magdalen of Mallin, was to marry the Duke of Wolfberg. Magdalen had dreamed about receiving a proposal ever since she met the duke two years ago. Such a marriage was the only way she could save her people from starvation. But why would a handsome, wealthy duke want to marry her, a poor baron’s daughter? It seemed too good to be true.
On the journey to Wolfberg Castle, Magdalen’s servant forces her to trade places and become her servant, threatening not only Magdalen’s life, but the lives of those she holds dear. Stripped of her identity and title in Wolfberg, where no one knows her, Magdalen is sentenced to tend geese while she watches her former handmaiden gain all Magdalen had ever dreamed of.
When a handsome shepherd befriends her, Magdalen begins to suspect he carries secrets of his own. Together, Magdalen and the shepherd uncover a sinister plot against Wolfberg and the duke. But with no resources, will they be able to find the answers, the hiding places, and the forces they need in time to save both Mallin and Wolfberg?
About the Author
Melanie Dickerson is a New York Times bestselling author and a Christy Award winner. Her first book, The Healer’s Apprentice, won the National Readers’ Choice Award for Best First Book in 2010, and The Merchant’s Daughter won the 2012 Carol Award. Melanie spends her time daydreaming, researching the most fascinating historical time periods, and writing stories at her home near Huntsville, Alabama, where she gathers dandelion greens for her two adorable guinea pigs between writing and editing her happily ever afters. Visit her online at MelanieDickerson.com; Facebook: MelanieDickersonBooks; Twitter: @MelanieAuthor.
Read an Excerpt
The Noble Servant
By Melanie Dickerson
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2017 Melanie Dickerson
All rights reserved.
The year 1365, Barony of Mallin, the Holy Roman Empire
Where do you think you are going looking like a beggar?" Mother asked.
Magdalen's hand was on the door. "Just walking."
"I'd think you would be ashamed to be seen in such clothing." Mother narrowed her eyes at Magdalen.
Magdalen wanted to say, "Even Hegatha allowed me to go for a walk in my oldest dress," but Mother did not like it when she spoke of the dead.
"Just don't let anyone see you, and if you are not home before dark, I will send Hans with his dogs."
Magdalen hurried out the door before her mother changed her mind.
The path led away from Mallin Park House across a gentle green hill. The village of Mallin was visible in the valley over her left shoulder. The farther she went, moving away from both her home and the village, the more grass grew on the once well-worn path.
Vegetable plots lay on either side. A middle-aged man stooped over a row of cabbages with his hoe. He looked up as Magdalen approached.
"Guten Morgen" Magdalen greeted.
"Guten Morgen, Lady Magdalen." He smiled and nodded. His frightfully skinny legs in baggy, thigh-length hose showed below his tattered woolen shirt that hung over his bony frame.
A pang of guilt twisted inside her, as it did every time she thought about her people being in need. If only the mines had not run out of copper. "God, please provide for them," she whispered.
She kept her gaze on the path that led down one grass-covered hill and up another, looking for interesting rocks to add to her collection, such as the rock that hung around her neck on a gold chain. It was the last gift her father had given her — a necklace made from a red jasper stone found in the copper mines.
As she neared the first of the three abandoned mines, the trees became thicker and the hills rockier. She stepped up to the narrow entrance, barely wide enough to admit a broad-shouldered man but plenty wide enough for Magdalen. Two large tree limbs lay across the opening. Magdalen lifted her skirts to step over them.
"Magdalen!" Jonatha called out.
Magdalen stopped, dropping her skirts back over her ankles. "I am here," she called out, catching sight of her sister's bright-blonde hair and Lenhart's tall, lanky frame through the trees.
"Mother wants you home right away. She sent Lenhart and me to fetch you back."
Lenhart's brown eyes widened as they did when he was excited or confused.
"Is something wrong?"
"A missive arrived just after you left." Jonatha's normally loud voice was slightly hushed. "Mother started screaming for you as soon as she read it."
What could this mean?
Magdalen started back down the narrow path toward home with Jonatha skipping in front of her and Lenhart striding behind.
While Jonatha sang a song, Magdalen's thoughts raced to that letter. She couldn't help but wonder if it was from the Duke of Wolfberg.
She had danced with the duke at Thornbeck Castle two years ago. Her mother had hoped he might seek to marry her, but that was unlikely. She was only a baron's daughter from a poor region.
She entered the house and could hear Mother's strident voice giving orders to one of the servants.
"Magdalen, you must make haste and pack your trunk." Her cheeks flushed, Mother motioned her forward. "The Duke of Wolfberg has sent for you. He wishes to marry you."
Her stomach fluttered and sank at the same time. It took a moment before she could speak. "He does? But why?"
Mother shook her head. "He probably heard about your brother and knows you will be the heir to Mallin now. What does it matter? He is rich, he can do as he pleases, and he has chosen you." Mother's eyes lit as she clasped her hands in front of her.
Jonatha danced around in a circle, squealing. "Let me come for a visit!" Jonatha threw her arms around her. Her other sisters ran into the room and joined the commotion.
"Be quiet!" Mother shrieked. "You'll make me go deaf."
Magdalen absently patted her sister's shoulder. "But I thought the duke studied in Prague at Karl University."
"He has come home, then." Mother held up a crisp parchment and shook it, making the ribbons dance from where they were sealed into the wax. "Because here is his seal and his colors on the letter. He wishes you to come to Wolfberg at once."
Her duty to her family and to her people required that she marry the wealthiest man she could to save them from extreme poverty. Indeed, she had hoped the duke would want to marry her. He was young and handsome, unlike most of the wealthy unmarried men in the Holy Roman Empire. Two years had passed, however, since she had seen him, and marrying him had sunk into the realm of the impossible.
But the impossible was happening. She, Magdalen of Mallin, was to marry the Duke of Wolfberg.
She took the parchment from her mother's hand and read it. It seemed to be in order, but the missive contained no reference to meeting her at Thornbeck, no expressions of eagerness to see her again, and no sentiment of any kind. Her heart sank. He barely knew her, but she'd hoped ...
"He doesn't say why he wants to marry me. He must know I have no fortune."
"You will marry him, and do it quickly." Mother shook her finger at Magdalen. "Don't you dare tell him you are poor either. Lady Thornbeck, whose father was nobody, managed to get herself a margrave, and now you'll have a duke."
Mother's lip curled in that way of hers that always made Magdalen's insides squirm.
"And you had better not think of going to Wolfberg and being mousey and submissive. After he has made you his wife, you will demand he live up to his responsibilities to your family. Make him think there is still copper in our mines, but insist that he send money and livestock. He can well afford it. Everyone is depending on you."
Mother jabbed her finger one last time in Magdalen's face. "Now make haste and pack your things. You shall leave at dawn tomorrow."
What if he'd heard false information about her fortune? She had been betrothed to an earl three years ago, but he had the betrothal annulled when he realized how poor she was. Her face still felt the sting of that humiliation.
Magdalen had hoped her mother would want her to be joyful in her marriage. A lump formed in her throat as she went to her room and began to collect her things.
Her desire was for true love, but perhaps that was selfish. And yet, the thought of having the same kind of marriage as her parents felt akin to a boulder sitting on her chest.
At least her marriage would save the people she loved from starving.
* * *
Steffan rode his horse between the two men his uncle had sent to escort him back to Wolfberg.
The road heading north from Prague was frequently shaded by large oak and birch trees in this verdant part of the Holy Roman Empire, but Steffan hardly noticed his surroundings. He had begun to doubt the honesty of these two guards. His suspicions had grown the farther down the road they traveled.
"Do you know Sir Burgen?" Steffan asked them just as a hawk took flight from the tree several feet in front of them.
"Oh yes, Your Grace," said the tall, dark-haired guard. "He was well when we left Wolfberg a few days ago."
"And Sir Ruger? He was in good health as well?"
"Yes, Your Grace." The stockier blond guard answered this time. "He sends his greetings to you."
Steffan felt a twist in his gut as all his senses heightened. Breath rushed into his lungs and energy flowed through his limbs as he noted the sword on each man's hip. What other weapons did they carry?
His own dagger was in his saddlebag. He had a smaller knife in the sheath on his belt, and his sword hung at his hip.
The dark-haired guard said, "Let us leave the road and enter the woods to find a place to sleep for the night."
Darkness had not yet descended, and they had only been riding for a few hours. Steffan eyed the two men. "There is an inn a few miles ahead."
The guards glanced at each other. "Very well, Your Grace."
They approached a stone bridge over a swift-flowing river.
"I believe my horse needs a drink," the dark one said. "And truth be known, I am thirsty myself."
Steffan slowed his horse to let the two men move ahead. When they reached the river, the guards dismounted from their horses. Steffan approached the water's edge. The men didn't even look his way, so he let his horse drink. He dismounted, keeping his hand on his sword hilt.
The men stared and slowly started moving toward him and away from each other. They flanked him, preparing to attack from both sides.
Steffan took a step to the left and one back, to shift nearer to the short guard. "Who sent you?"
"We told you," the tall one said. "Your uncle, Lord Hazen." A devious smile stretched his thin face.
"You said Sir Burgen and Sir Ruger were well." He continued to move to the left and back. "Sir Burgen died ten years ago, and Sir Ruger fifteen years ago."
"Everyone must die sooner or later." The tall one drew his sword with a metal-on-leather sound.
The short one followed suit, but Steffan beat him to the draw. He leapt at him and hit the man's wrist with his sword blade. The short, blond guard dropped his sword with a screech.
Steffan crooked his arm around the man's neck and jerked him around, holding the short one in front of him like a shield.
The tall one struck at his sword, but Steffan parried his strike. The tall one brought his blade down for another strike. Steffan shoved the short guard at him. The tall one struck his companion instead, slicing through his neck. The short guard made a gurgling sound as he fell face-first on the ground between them.
Steffan kept striking at the tall guard, beating him back several steps. He refused to look at the river just behind his opponent so as not to reveal its proximity.
Steffan gripped the sword hilt with both hands, wielding one overhand blow after another. He forced his enemy back one step at a time until he stood at the very edge of the bank. Only then did the man's gaze dip to the river below.
His eyes went wide and he hesitated, giving Steffan one extra moment. Steffan struck the man's raised sword and pushed him. The man threw his arms out wide as he fell.
He cried out just before he hit the water and went under.
Steffan watched and waited. The man bobbed to the surface several yards downriver, flailing his arms, then went under again.
Steffan walked back to where the first man lay in a puddle of blood. "Oh God in heaven," he breathed, lifting his head and gazing downriver. The attack had hardly lasted five minutes, it happened so fast.
"I just killed two men. Forgive me." He made the sign of the cross with his right hand. The two men had intended to kill him. He'd had no choice, but the thought made him so sick he sank to the ground.
Home. He would think of Wolfberg Castle. The chalky-white shore next to the sea behind the castle. The grassy-green pastures and the roar of the crashing waves.
Who had wanted him dead? Could his uncle have sent assassins? Even if Steffan were dead, Lord Hazen would not inherit his title. Since Steffan had no heir, the title would become extinct, and yet it was likely that King Karl would bequeath Wolfberg Castle and all of Steffan's properties to his uncle, unless the king had another loyal subject on whom he'd rather bestow this favor.
Before she died, his grandmother had warned him about Lord Hazen's greed and lack of feeling. Still, it was difficult to accept.
Steffan walked to his horse and sheathed his sword. His two would-be murderers' horses had shied away, but Steffan was able to catch them. He tied them to his horse and started toward Wolfberg and home.
But what would he find when he arrived?CHAPTER 2
What would life be like in her new home, married to the Duke of Wolfberg?
Magdalen's cart jolted as they hit another hole in the road, knocking her nearly into the wooden side rail. She had begged her mother to let her ride her horse, but Mother said riding a horse all the way on a three-day journey was not appropriate for a lady. Did she think it was ladylike to ride in a cart for twelve hours a day, rattling her teeth every time a wheel found a dip in the road?
But no one argued with the Baroness of Mallin.
Erlich, who had served Magdalen's family for years, rode his horse while his daughter, Agnes, walked. And Lenhart made up the fourth member of their group as he walked beside the mules who pulled Magdalen's cart.
Wolfberg Castle stood on a hill overlooking the sea. She'd never beheld the sea. What would it be like to hear the waves crashing against the shore? What kind of rocks might she find there?
"Rosings Abbey is just ahead." Erlich pointed to the lane off to the right.
Darkness closed in on them. Erlich reined in his horse as he waited for Lenhart to turn the mules, drawing Magdalen's cart into the lane that would carry them to the abbey. The tall convent buildings, with their steep roofs, were visible above the rows of trees.
At the abbey a young nun greeted them with a bow. She led Magdalen and Agnes to a long, low building, then to an austere room with two small cots. Magdalen's legs were like jelly after using them all day to brace herself as she rode in the jarring cart.
Agnes set her bundle on the floor. She turned one way then the other, her tight blonde braid swaying as she stretched her back. "I shall go and speak with my father and return soon." Agnes did not ask permission but simply walked out before Magdalen could py.
Gretha, who had been her constant companion since Hegatha had died of a sudden apoplexy, had been all set to come to Wolfberg with her. The day before they were to leave, Gretha told Magdalen she would not be going with her, but Agnes would be taking her place.
Not wanting to hurt Agnes's feelings, Magdalen had agreed.
Now as Magdalen prepared to lie down and sleep before the third and final day of their journey, she wished she had inquired more particularly about how this change had come to pass. Every day Agnes had done something-given Magdalen a shrewd look or spoken more sharply to her than any servant should-to make Magdalen regret allowing her to accompany her.
And now, instead of asking her mistress if she needed anything, Agnes had left Magdalen to struggle alone to take off her heavy overdress.
Magdalen didn't want to embarrass Agnes in front of her father, but as soon as they arrived in Wolfberg, she would have a stern talk with Agnes about her duties as a lady's maidservant.
And if her attitude did not improve, she would replace her with someone from Wolfberg.
Magdalen lay on the narrow cot, covered with a thin blanket since it was still late summer and warm, and thought of her future husband.
Good sense told her it was strange that the Duke of Wolfberg would ask to marry her when Magdalen was only the daughter of a poor widowed baroness. He had seemed sensible when she met him and a man of integrity as well. Every time she closed her eyes and recalled his face, his smile, the kindness in his eyes, her heart fluttered.
But truly, she knew very little about him. She had talked to him, all total, for only two or three hours.
Agnes opened the door, then shut it behind herself, interrupting Magdalen's musings.
"When you are ready for bed, you may blow out the candle," Magdalen told her.
"I will." A snide tone infused her cheerful voice.
Magdalen said a prayer to quell her uneasiness and closed her eyes.
* * *
The next morning when Magdalen awoke, Agnes was gone. Magdalen gathered her things, dressed herself, and was ready to go when Agnes came back in.
"Here is your breakfast, Lady Magdalen." With bold eyes she handed Magdalen a warm bundle. Inside was a bun stuffed with meat and cheese. "I also snagged us some apple pasties. Are you ready to go?"
Soon they met Erlich and Lenhart with the cart, mules, and horse and set out on the road to Wolfberg.
When they halted for their midday meal, Magdalen climbed down from the cart and took a drink from the small spring nearby. She splashed some of the cold water on her face, then wiped her cheeks and forehead with a cloth.
When they had finished eating, Agnes and her father kept glancing at each other. A nervous flutter in the pit of Magdalen's stomach caused her to watch them closely. Agnes clutched a small bag to her midsection as she turned to face Magdalen.
"This is how things are." Agnes's eyes were hard and dark as she stood five paces away. "I want to be married to a duke, to be rich, and you are going to change places with me." Agnes pulled her hand out of the bag withdrawing a knife. Her father stepped behind her.
Excerpted from The Noble Servant by Melanie Dickerson. Copyright © 2017 Melanie Dickerson. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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