The margrave owns the finest hunting grounds for miles around—and who teaches children to read, but by night this young beauty has become the secret lifeline to the poorest of the poor.
For Jorgen Hartman, the margrave’s forester, tracking down a poacher is a duty he is all too willing to perform. Jorgen inherited his post from the man who raised him . . . a man who was murdered at the hands of a poacher.
When Jorgen and Odette meet at the Midsummer festival and share a connection during a dance, neither has any idea that they are already adversaries.
The one man she wants is bound by duty to capture her; the one woman he loves is his cunning target . . . What becomes of a forester who protects a notorious poacher? What becomes of a poacher when she is finally discovered?
From New York Times bestselling author Melanie Dickerson, The Huntress of Thornbeck Forest is a story of danger and love.
Praise for The Huntress of Thornbeck Forest:
“The Huntress of Thornbeck Forest reminds me of why adults should read fairy tales. Author Melanie Dickerson shoots straight to the heart with a cast of compelling characters, an enchanting story world, and romance and suspense in spades. Reaching The End was regrettable—but oh, what an ending!” —Laura Frantz, bestselling author of The Lacemaker
“Melanie Dickerson does it again! Full of danger, intrigue, and romance, this beautifully crafted story will transport you to another place and time.” —Sarah E. Ladd, bestselling author of The Governess of Penwythe Hall
“Melanie Dickerson’s The Huntress of Thornbeck Forest is a lovely, romantic read set during one of the most fascinating time periods. Featuring a feisty, big-hearted heroine and a hero to root for, this sweet medieval tale is wrapped in a beautiful journey of faith that had me flipping pages well after my bedtime. Delightful!” —Tamara Leigh, USA TODAY bestselling author of Baron of Godsmere
“Melanie Dickerson weaves a tantalizing Robin Hood plot in a medieval setting in The Huntress of Thornbeck Forest. She pits a brave heroine with unique talents against a strong, gentle hero whose occupation makes it dangerous to know him. Add the moral dilemma and this tale makes a compelling read for any age.” —Ruth Axtell, author of She Shall Be Praised and The Rogue's Redemption
“For stories laden with relatable heroines, romantically adventurous plots, once-upon-a-time settings, and engaging writing, Melanie Dickerson is your go-to author. Her books are on my never-to-be-missed list.” —Kim Vogel Sawyer, author of When Mercy Rains
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The Huntress of Thornbeck Forest
A Medieval Fairy Tale
By Melanie Dickerson
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2015 Melanie Dickerson
All rights reserved.
The year 1363, in the northeast German reaches of the Holy Roman Empire, the Margravate of Thornbeck
The tip of the arrow found its mark, a perfect shot through the deer's heart and lungs. The animal took two steps forward, then a side step, and fell over.
Odette's five men—more boys than men, as they were around thirteen or fourteen years old—darted out of the cover of the bushes and ran toward the animal that would feed at least four families. They began to cut it apart and prepared to carry it, and all evidence of it, away in their leather game bags.
But far more than four hungry families and many orphaned children inhabited the town of Thornbeck, so Odette motioned to the two boys looking to her. They set off deeper into the forest that was the margrave's game park. The only one reaping the good of Thornbeck Forest, rightfully, was the margrave. He could spare a few deer to feed the poor. He could spare them quite well.
Odette moved through the trees and undergrowth, trying to step as quietly as possible. The two boys stayed behind her. The moon was full, the night sky was clear of clouds, and enough light filtered through the trees to help her find her way to another of the harts' favorite feeding spots. Either a salt deposit was there or the grass was particularly sweet, because that was where she often found her most desired prey—fully grown red deer—with their necks bowed low as they ate.
Odette came within sight of the spot and crouched to wait, holding her longbow and an arrow at the ready. Soon, a hind moved soundlessly into the small clearing. Odette's fingers twitched in anticipation of the meat that would assuage the hunger of many people, but the twinge of pity that pinched her chest kept her from raising her bow and taking aim. It was summer, tomorrow being St. John the Baptist Day, and the hind no doubt had at least one newborn fawn, possibly two or three, hidden away somewhere, waiting for her to come back and nurse them.
Creating more orphans, even of the animal kind, went against everything Odette strove for, so she resisted taking the shot. Instead, she sat waiting and watching. After a few minutes, her breath stilled as a large stag with huge antlers stepped up beside the hind. He kept his head high as he seemed to be listening.
Odette swiftly raised her bow and pulled the arrow back. She pressed her cheek close to take aim and let the arrow fly.
Just at that moment, the stag must have caught wind of her or heard a noise because he turned and leapt away in one fluid movement, and the hind was less than a moment behind him. Odette's arrow missed them and disappeared in the night.
With the boys behind her, she went to search for the arrow. She did not want the margrave's forester finding it. She was careful to poach only one or two large animals a night, and it was important to take away all evidence that they had been there.
Where was that arrow? Odette went to the spot where it should have landed, beyond where the deer had been standing. She hunted around the bush, then parted the leaves to peer inside and underneath, searching for the white feather on the end. She felt around on the ground. No white feather and no arrow.
Her men were searching a little farther away. Suddenly, she heard laughter. She lifted her head, much like she had seen the deer do many times, and listened. Her two men looked at her, their eyes wide.
Voices drifted toward them, too far away for her to make out the words, but they seemed to be growing nearer. She clenched her teeth. Why couldn't she find that arrow? With reluctance, she motioned for the young men to follow her and moved away, back toward the town. She couldn't let anyone see her here, not with a longbow and a quiver of arrows on her back. The penalty for poaching was imprisonment, being fastened in the pillory in the town square, or having one's hand or ear cut off.
The voices likely belonged to people looking for special herbs and flowers to burn in the Midsummer bonfire the next night. Tomorrow even more people would be out in Thornbeck Forest, wandering into the margrave's game park. It would be too dangerous to go out hunting at all. If only she had not missed that stag.
She backtracked toward the three men she had left to take the hart she had killed earlier. They were hoisting the various pieces of meat over their shoulders and across their backs to carry out of the forest. They paused to kick the leaves and dirt over the bloody evidence of their kill.
As Odette approached, they turned and froze.
"It's me," she whispered. "We need to leave. People are coming this way."
They nodded as one of them dragged a tree limb over the ground to further disguise the evidence of their kill.
Just before they reached the edge of the forest, Odette pulled an old gray cloak out of her pouch and used it to cover her longbow and arrows, tucking them under her arm. She called to the young men, "Wait."
They stopped and looked at her.
"Give me one of those bags. I will deliver it."
They exchanged glances. Then the tallest boy said, "Rutger said we should deliver all the game to his storehouse, for him to distribute."
"I will tell him that I delivered this bag." She lifted a heavy haunch of venison off his shoulder. "He will not mind."
The boys continued on, but Odette, dressed as a boy with a long dark tunic and hose, her blond hair hidden inside her hood, went in a different direction.
She headed for the little hut just outside the town wall, a place where many of the poorest people lived in makeshift shelters. She knocked on the house that was leaning to one side and held up with sticks, and little Hanns opened the door, peeking around the side and rubbing his eyes with his fist.
"I'm sorry for waking you, Hanns."
"Shh." She put her finger to her lips, then whispered, "I brought you something. In the morning you will have some fried venison for breakfast. How does that sound?"
Hanns stopped rubbing his face, his mouth fell open, and his eyes got round. As Odette held out the leather bag, the air rushed out of him with an excited, "Oh!"
"Don't wake your mother now. You can surprise her in the morning."
"I will!" Without closing the door, he turned and, straining to carry the heavy meat, disappeared inside the dark one-room, dirt-floor house.
Odette closed the door and turned to hasten home while it was still dark.
* * *
Jorgen Hartman knelt before the altar of Thornbeck Cathedral and bowed his head. As it was the feast day of St. John the Baptist, he and many other people from town had come to pray. Some of the townspeople had brought herbs to the church for the priest to bless, which should give the herbs special healing abilities. Others, like Jorgen, were there because they had missed the midday Mass and wanted to offer prayers on this holy day.
Jorgen finished praying and rose to his feet. As he did, a woman several feet away caught his eye as she lighted a candle. She was lovely, with long blond hair that fell in curls down her back from underneath her veil. In the candlelight, her face seemed to glow with piety and sweetness. He drank in the beauty of her facial features as she knelt, making the sign of the cross. But then she drew the veil over her face as she bowed in prayer.
Since he didn't want to stand and gawk at her profile, still visible beneath the veil, he made his way to the other end of the nave, perusing the stained glass windows depicting various stories and people of the Christian faith. He focused on the one where John the Baptist baptized his cousin Jesus and the Holy Spirit came down in the form of a dove. He'd always loved the brilliant colors of the windows and had often slipped into the nave as a boy, hiding in a corner to stare at the depictions and their bright reds and blues, greens and yellows.
The beautiful girl finally stood and was joined by a man. Was he her husband? Holy saints, let him be her father.
As they made their way toward the door, he tried not to stare. She passed by him and out the cathedral door without ever looking his way.
Perhaps he would see her at the Midsummer festival in a few hours.
Jorgen went to visit his friend Paulin, who had broken his leg and was not able to go to the Midsummer festival. Afterward, Jorgen joined with the crowds who were flowing toward the sound of the Minnesingers in the town center. Young maidens skipped along in their flowing dresses, carrying bouquets of flowering herbs and wearing woven crowns of white wildflowers.
There would be a bonfire in the Marktplatz and dancing, and unmarried maidens would be alert to find their future husbands. Now that he was nearing five and twenty years, even his mother had approved of him coming to the Midsummer celebration.
Winking, she had said, "Perhaps if you dance with some pretty maidens, one of them will dream of you tonight."
He kissed her wrinkled cheek. "You should pray that whoever dreams of me tonight will be a good daughter to you."
"I will and do not doubt it." Her tone was gentler now. "She will be a good girl indeed to deserve you."
He touched her cheek and looked into her faded blue eyes. "Thank you, Mama."
Now he looked around and wondered which of the maidens, if any, his mother was praying for. Already he had seen a pretty red-haired maiden glancing back at him, and a raven-haired girl of perhaps sixteen smiling and waving at him.
As he drew nearer the center, moving slowly because of the dense crowd, the smell of fresh bread made him take a deep breath.
A baker stood outside his shop holding a tray of bread rolls. A small boy, perhaps six years old and dressed in rags, stood at the corner of the shop, his head peeking around from the alley where an even smaller girl stood behind him.
He caught his breath. It was little Helena.
No, Helena had been dead for more than fifteen years. The sight of her bloody body, lying in the street where the horse had trampled her, flashed through his mind like lightning. Her bright eyes stared up, and her mouth moved wordlessly as she fought to draw breath into her crushed chest. He could still feel her body growing cold in his arms while heartless, frowning faces stared down at him, and a man shouted at him to get out of the street.
The tiny girl who now stood in the narrow side street was not looking back at Jorgen. Instead, she was looking anxiously at the little boy peering at the baker and his bread. The look of desperation in the boy's face seemed familiar. Jorgen watched, knowing what the boy was about to do, but also knowing he would not be able to get through the people in time to stop him.
The boy darted around the corner and ran toward the baker, staying close to the wall of the shop. While the baker was handing two rolls to a woman who placed a coin on the baker's tray, the boy ran by and snatched a roll.
Perhaps he had not seen the woman on the other side of the baker, but she had seen him. She grabbed the back of the boy's neck with one hand and his arm with the other. "Thief!" she cried.
The boy dropped the bread and threw all his weight in the opposite direction, but the woman was too strong for him. Her grip held firm. The boy yelped.
From his view of the side street, Jorgen saw the girl child cover her face with her hands and her shoulders start to shake. Even though she couldn't see the boy from where she stood, she undoubtedly heard his pleading for the woman to let him go.
"A few hours in the pillory will do you good, you little knave." The woman gave his ear a twist. Though his face twitched in pain, he did not cry out.
Jorgen broke away from the crowd and stepped in front of the woman and her captive.
"Frau, pardon me," Jorgen said, causing the woman to look up at him. "The child left home without his money. Will you accept this to pay for the bread he dropped on the ground?" He held out two coins to her, enough to pay for four of the baker's rolls.
The dark cloudiness of her expression changed as she looked at his money and then back at his face.
"I'm sure the child is sorry." He placed his hand on the boy's shoulder and stepped even closer.
"I suppose ... but if he learns to steal now," she muttered, "he'll be a thief all his life ... naught but a thief." She accepted the money, took three more rolls off her husband's tray, and handed the bread to Jorgen.
"I thank you." He nodded to her and nudged the boy as they backed away from her.
When they were a few steps away, with the boy staring up at the bread in Jorgen's hand, he pulled the boy aside and squatted so he could look the child in the eye. "Here is the bread, but do not steal. Next time you might be punished."
The little boy drew himself up, squaring his shoulders and lifting his chin, as if trying to look taller. "I am not afraid."
"Of course not. But your little sister would be very frightened if you were taken to the town square and fastened in the pillory."
The little boy glanced behind him at the girl who was standing at the corner of the alley, sniffling and staring at them both.
The little boy's shoulders slumped. "Can I go now?"
Jorgen's heart constricted at the look on the boy's face. "Do you have a mother or father?"
"I have a mother."
"Where do you live?"
He pointed in the direction of the alley. "With my mother's sister, but she says she cannot feed us."
"If you need food, go to the gamekeeper's cottage. Do you know where it is?"
"Outside the town gate, in the margrave's forest?"
"That is where I live. My mother will give you food if I am not there."
The expression in his eyes was much older than his years. Finally, the boy nodded. Jorgen walked him back to his sister, and the boy handed her a bread roll. They both put the bread in their mouths and bit into them. Then they turned and started down the alley side by side.
"Wait." He couldn't bear to let them leave with only a few small rolls. While he felt around in his pocket, he asked, "What is your name?"
"Martin, do not lose this." He handed him some coins. "Buy some food for yourself and your sister."
The whites of the boy's eyes flashed, as did his teeth, as he finally smiled. "Thank you." He grabbed his sister's hand and ran away.
Jorgen turned back in the direction of the town center and Marktplatz, blinking to try to erase the memory that the boy and his little sister had brought to the surface. The sounds of lute, hurdy-gurdy, and a Minnesinger's voice singing a familiar ballad lured him on toward the music and dancing, where he might forget that he was ever as poor, hungry, and desperate as the two children he had just seen.CHAPTER 2
Odette's friend Anna held up a braided wildflower circlet and placed it on Odette's head. "Now you are ready for the Midsummer festival."
"Do you not think I'm getting too old to dress like the other unmarried maidens on Midsummer?"
"Of course not. You are unmarried, are you not? You'll be the fairest maiden in the town square."
Odette embraced her friend. "And you'll be the fairest married woman there."
Anna laughed. "And the sleepiest. The baby woke me up three times last night."
They stood admiring each other in the large ground-floor room of the half-timber house where Odette lived with her uncle. Odette wore the lightweight, white linen overdress that all the maidens wore on Midsummer's Eve, while Anna wore a beautiful blue cotehardie with cutaway sides and a decorative belt.
One of the maidservants came down the stairs with the cloths, brushes, and bucket she used for cleaning the upper floors.
Had Odette hidden her bow and arrows before going to bed just before dawn? The sick feeling in her stomach told her she had forgotten.
Trying to hold on to her smile, Odette squeezed her friend's arm. "Wait here while I go do something."
Odette rushed up the stairs to her bedchamber on the third floor and nearly ran into her uncle in the stairwell. "Uncle Rutger. I didn't see you. Did Heinke clean my chamber?"
He shrugged. "She may have. Did you need her to do something for you?"
"It's nothing. I just need to ..." Odette hastened away without finishing her sentence. Inside her chamber, the flagstone floor was swept clean and the bedclothes were straightened. But the old cloak she used to cover her longbow and arrows was lying folded across her bed.
Odette scurried to her trunk against the wall. She yanked off the bear fur that lay over it and raised the lid. Her longbow and arrows were not inside.
Glancing around frantically, she caught sight of them leaning against the wall in the corner. How could she have left them in plain sight?
"Is that what I think it is?"
Odette spun around. Rutger stood in the doorway. Her uncle was only a bit taller than she was, and he was thin, with thinning brown hair.
"Oh. I didn't hear you there." Her heart thumped against her chest, and she hurried to grab the cloak off her bed, then to the corner where her weapons were resting against the wall. She wrapped the bow and arrows in the cloak.
"Did you not think it would be a good idea to hide that from view?" Rutger quirked up one side of his mouth.
"Of course. I never leave them out where anyone can see them. Last night I must have forgotten." She cringed as she placed them into the trunk and closed the lid, then drew the bearskin over it.
Odette closed her eyes and tried to take a deep breath. Heinke would not tell anyone that Odette owned a longbow and arrows, would she? And even if she did, they would never suspect the niece of a respectable merchant of poaching ... would they?
Excerpted from The Huntress of Thornbeck Forest by Melanie Dickerson. Copyright © 2015 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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