From New York Times bestselling author comes The Silent Songbird!
Evangeline is gifted with a heavenly voice, but she is trapped in a sinister betrothal until she embarks on a daring escape and meets brave Westley le Wyse. Can he help her discover the freedom to sing again?
Desperate to flee a political marriage to her cousin King Richard II’s closest advisor, Lord Shiveley—a man twice her age with shadowy motives—Evangeline runs away and joins a small band of servants journeying back to Glynval, their home village.
Pretending to be mute, she gets to know Westley le Wyse, their handsome young leader, who is intrigued by the beautiful servant girl. But when the truth comes out, it may shatter any hope that love could grow between them.
More than Evangeline’s future is at stake as she finds herself entangled in a web of intrigue that threatens England’s monarchy. Should she give herself up to protect the only person who cares about her? If she does, who will save the king from a plot to steal his throne?
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 Silent Songbird
By Melanie Dickerson
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2016 Melanie Dickerson
All rights reserved.
Summer 1384. Berkhamsted Castle, Hertfordshire, England.
"Servants may marry whomever they wary but a kiny's ward has no freedom at all."
Evangeline broke off the song she was singing. A lump rose in her throat. Through her open window facing the castle bailey she watched the servants talking and laughing and milling about, finishing their morning chores.
A kitchen maid was drawing a bucket of water at the well in the center of the bailey. A young man approached her.
Alma gave him the dipper, and he lifted it to his lips.
The stranger's hair was brown and fell over his brow at an angle. He was tall, and even from Evangeline's bedchamber window on the third level of the castle, she could see he was handsome, with a strong chin and a sturdy stance.
He passed the water around to the other men who had followed him to the well. Evangeline leaned out the window to try to catch what they were saying.
"Thank you," the man said as he handed the dipper back to the servant. He wore the clothing of a peasant — a leather mantle over his long linen tunic.
"Where are you from?" Alma asked.
"Glynval, a little village north ... brought ... to sell ... and wheat flour ..." Evangeline couldn't make out all the words.
The man wasn't like most peasants. Not that she had seen very many. But this man held himself upright with an air of confidence and ease she had rarely seen before.
Evangeline leaned out a little farther, hanging on to the casement. The man was moving on as the cart started forward, Alma still staring after him. He turned to say something to the other men and suddenly looked up at Evangeline.
She jumped backward, her heart crashing against her chest.
"What are you doing, hanging out the window like a common —? Don't you know better than to behave that way?" Muriel hurried to the open window and peered out, then closed it and clamped her hands on her hips.
"Am I not allowed to look out the window? I'm no better than the prisoners in the dungeon. You know, I feel much pity for them. I daydream sometimes about releasing them and running away with them." She tipped her face to the ceiling as if turning her face to the sun and closed her eyes. "How good it would feel, walking free through the fields of wildflowers I read about in a poem once, breathing the fresh air, free to go wherever I want."
"You think your jests are amusing," Muriel said, "but when the king of England is your guardian and is planning your wedding to a wealthy nobleman, you should not expect pity. Envy is more likely."
"Wedding? What do you mean?" Evangeline's heart seemed to stop beating. "What do you know?"
"It is only gossip, but it is said that the king has promised you to one of his closest advisors."
"The Earl of Shiveley."
Evangeline reached out and placed a hand on the stone wall as the room seemed to teeter from side to side. How could the king betroth her to him? Lord Shiveley was old — almost forty — and Evangeline was barely seventeen. She had only seen Lord Shiveley a few times when he had accompanied the king to Berkhamsted Castle. He stared at her in a way that made her stomach sick, and he always managed to put a hand on her — on her shoulder or her back, and even once at her waist. She would always writhe inwardly and step away from him as quickly as she could.
Besides that, it was rumored that Lord Shiveley's first wife had died under mysterious circumstances.
"The king and Lord Shiveley will arrive tonight, and you must be ready to greet them." Muriel bustled over to the wardrobe where Evangeline's best dresses were kept. She opened it and rummaged through her clothing. "You should wash your hair. I have ordered your bath sent up, and I shall —"
"Muriel, stop!" Evangeline stared at the woman who had been her closest companion and confidant for ten years. Though Muriel was nearly old enough to be her mother, she could not be so daft.
Muriel stared back at her with a bland expression. "What is it?"
"Surely you must see that I cannot marry that man." Her voice was a breathy whisper.
"My dear," Muriel said, not unkindly, "you know, you have always known, you must marry whomever the king wishes you to."
Evangeline's throat constricted. "The king does not care a whit about my feelings."
"Careful." Muriel's gaze darted about the room. "You mustn't risk speaking against the king. You never know who might betray you."
"I shall tell the king to his face when he arrives that I shall not marry Lord Shiveley, and it is cruel to ask it of me."
"You know you shall do no such thi —"
"I shall! I shall tell him!"
"Evangeline. You are too old to get in such a passion. Sit down and calm yourself. Breathe."
Evangeline crossed her arms over her chest and ignored Muriel's order. She had to think of some way to escape. Women often married men they did not particularly want to marry, but she could not marry Lord Shiveley. She was not like other women. They might accept unfair treatment, but Evangeline would fight, argue, rebel against injustice. Other women conformed to what was expected of them. Perhaps they did not dream of freedom and a different life.
"You must listen to reason," Muriel said. "Lord Shiveley is rich and can give you your own home. You will finally have the freedom to do whatever you wish. You will have servants and your own gardens and even your own horse. Many ladies enjoy falconry and hunting. You can have as many dresses and as much jewelry, or anything else your heart desires."
Only if her husband allowed it.
Muriel knew her well enough to know what might sway her. But a husband did not give freedom. A husband made rules. He took away his wife's control and replaced it with his own. A wealthy, powerful husband could order his wife around, beat her, do whatever he wished to her, and she could do naught.
Peasants, if they were not married and were free men and women, might be poor, but was it not a hundred times better to be free than to have fancy clothes and expensive food and servants to do everything for you? Freedom and independence were worth more than all the gold a castle could hold. Freedom to choose whom to marry, freedom to walk about the countryside unhindered, to drink from a cool, clear stream and gaze up into the trees, to ride a horse and eat while standing up. To bathe in the river and laugh and sing at the top of her voice — that was freedom.
And now King Richard was about to force her to marry an old, disgusting man.
"But you said it was gossip." Evangeline began to breathe easier. "Perhaps it was only idle talk."
Or if it was true, once she was able to talk to King Richard, he would understand. They'd been friends since they were very young, being cousins and only six months apart in age. Although she had not seen much of Richard in the past few years, surely he would listen to her pleas.
Her stomach sank. She was fooling herself. Richard would not listen to her if he had made up his mind. His loyalty to his advisors came before any childhood friendship he might still feel for Evangeline.
"At least Lord Shiveley is taller than you are." Muriel arched her brows.
"Just because I am taller than half the men I've ever met doesn't mean I want to marry this man." Evangeline turned away from Muriel and sat on the bench by the window, placing her head in her hands. Perhaps if she were able to cry, it would relieve this terrible ache in her chest.
"There now." Muriel sat beside her and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Do not fret about something that may not even be true. We shall wait until the king arrives and let him tell you why he's here and if he has aught to say to you."
But the gentle warmth of Muriel's hand did not feel comforting. Muriel was fifteen years older than Evangeline, but they were both illegitimate daughters of important men — Evangeline's father was the king's uncle, while Muriel's father was an archbishop. Both of them were dependent on the kindness of King Richard.
Fortunately for Muriel, she was not valued as a pawn in the king's political maneuverings, to be married off to a man the king wanted to please or bribe. It was easy for Muriel to tell Evangeline not to fret about marrying a repulsive man.
A knock came at the door. Muriel opened it to a man wearing the livery of the king.
"A message for Evangeline, ward of the king, daughter of Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence."
Evangeline stood. Muriel brought her the missive, which had been sealed in dark-red wax with the king's signet ring. She tore it open. The words leapt off the page at her:
Evangeline, I and the Earl of Shiveley would enjoy hearing you sing for us with that famous, incomparable voice of yours. I believe you are acquainted with my advisor, which is more than most noble brides can boast of their betrothed. He became quite enamored of you the last time he heard you sing.
The note slipped from her hand and fluttered to the floor.
Muriel snatched it up while Evangeline's whole body went cold. Would her blood congeal from horror? Would she fall to the floor dead? Her throat seemed to close and she was dizzy.
She could not allow herself to be overcome like other women she read about who fainted but then went to their fates like sheep with no compunction or will of their own.
Jesus, is that what You would wish me to do? Comply and submit and allow myself to be married off to someone who makes my stomach churn and my skin crawl? Jesus submitted to a terrible fate for the good of mankind, but Evangeline could not see any good that could come from marrying Lord Shiveley. Except that it would please King Richard.
"Now, my dear." Muriel carefully laid the letter down on a shelf. "I know you think you do not wish to marry Lord Shiveley, but consider some other good things this will bring to you. You will win the king's favor. Your husband may truly love you, and you may get children from the union. Indeed, there are many benefits that will come."
"How can any of that be worth marrying someone I cannot abide? And you know what people say about his first wife." Evangeline spun away from her. Muriel would refuse to listen or understand how Evangeline felt.
"That is only idle gossip. No one pays attention to such talk. And it will be far better if you simply accept that you have no choice and try to make the best of it. What else can you do?"
"What else can I do?" Evangeline's voice rose in near-hysterical tones. "Accept that I have no choice?" Sobs choked off further speech as she kept her back to Muriel. Muriel would think she was selfish not to do as the king asked, and Muriel would stop loving her if she thought she was selfish. But it hurt so much to think of losing any chance of contentment and throwing herself away on Lord Shiveley.
"I shall leave you alone for a while." Muriel turned and her footsteps receded to the door. Then she seemed to hesitate and said, "I am truly sorry, Evangeline. But God will sustain you." The door clicked open, then shut again.
If she were like other women, she would let the king use her as a gift, a favor, a pawn. But she would do something no other noble ladies that she knew of ever did. She would refuse to marry Lord Shiveley. If necessary, she would run away, take on another identity, lose herself in the English countryside. She had imagined it many times, had thought long and hard about the different ways she might escape.
All her life Evangeline had lived in various royal residences — mostly at Berkhamsted Castle — wherever the king sent her to live. The king was so afraid she might be kidnapped and held for ransom he had ordered her to stay inside the walls, only allowed to venture out occasionally when she had guards nearby. Most people in England probably did not even know the Duke of Clarence had a second child or that her name was Evangeline.
When the king visited, he and other special guests would accompany her on a hunt in the adjacent deer park or a walk around the gardens. She obeyed, accepting that she was not the master of her own fate. Evangeline had rarely done anything courageous or unexpected.
Tonight was a good time for a change, to see if she was brave enough to carry out her fantasy of running away.
* * *
Westley le Wyse thanked the servant girl for the water.
Above him in the castle window, a young red-haired woman was staring down at him. Was she the one who had been singing just moments before? He had been listening, rapt and still, to that voice, the one singing a rustic ballad with such refinement and grace, until it suddenly went silent. As soon as their eyes met, she disappeared from the window, almost as if someone had snatched her back.
He only glimpsed her, but he got the impression she was not a servant by her clothing and hair, and that she was quite lovely. The rumor was that the king had a ward living at Berkhamsted Castle, a young woman with an ethereally beautiful voice. Some said she was the illegitimate daughter of the king's dead uncle, Lionel of Antwerp, which meant she was the granddaughter of King Edward. But she might be only a myth. Legends often were created from some tidbit of gossip.
"Did you hear the news?"
He shifted around to face the servant girl who lingered in the bailey with her bucket of water.
"King Richard is coming to Berkhamsted Castle tonight."
That would be a sight. Even Westley's father had never seen the king.
"We are all busy with preparations for the king and his retinue. What provisions did you and your men bring for us?" The girl was standing on tiptoe, trying to see over his shoulder.
"Wheat flour, oats, malt, and some large cheeses."
It had been a good year for several crops in Glynval and the surrounding land. Westley had come to Berkhamsted Castle with his father's servants to sell their excess.
"This is my little sister." The servant girl indicated the golden-haired child playing behind her. "I have to watch her today since my mother is sick."
The little girl looked to be about six years old. She was squealing and grunting as she leapt and spun about, trying to catch a bright-yellow butterfly that fluttered just out of her reach.
A horse's angry neigh drew Westley's attention to the other end of the bailey.
"Steady," said a man holding the horse's bridle. Its neigh grew into a high-pitched screech. The horse leapt straight up, snatching the bridle out of the man's hands. The horse's hooves touched the ground and the animal bolted forward. The cart knocked the man to the ground as it jolted past him.
The horse galloped across the bailey-heading straight for the little girl.
"Get out of the way!" Westley pushed the servant aside as he raced toward the little girl, willing her to move out of the path of the horse.
The girl suddenly seemed to hear the noise of the horse's hooves and the clattering cart barreling toward her. She froze and stared, her mouth open.
Westley ran and grabbed her around her middle with one arm, then dove to the side. He held her above him as his shoulder and back collided with the ground.CHAPTER 2
When Muriel left her room/, Evangeline wandered hack to the window that faced the bailey.
While she watched Alma talk with the handsome young man, a horse broke away from its handler and careened toward Alma's little sister.
The child saw the horse coming. Why didn't she run? She seemed frozen.
Evangeline screamed, "Run!"
The young man leapt toward the girl, grabbed her, and pulled her out of the way just in time.
The horse galloped on and crashed the cart into the stone wall around the well. The cart now in pieces, the horse kept going and finally stopped at the opposite wall of the bailey.
Evangeline clutched her chest as air seeped back into her lungs.
The little girl was crying. The young man set her on her feet, and Alma ran to her and hugged her. Was the stranger hurt? He took quite a hard fall as he protected the child in his arms.
He got to his feet as the other men with him rushed to his side. He must have spoken to Alma and the little girl because they turned toward him. How Evangeline wished she could hear what they were saying! She leaned out of the window but couldn't catch their words. She imagined he asked the kitchen maid if the child was uninjured and imagined her replying, "Yes, only frightened," as the child's crying lessened.
Excerpted from The Silent Songbird by Melanie Dickerson. Copyright © 2016 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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