The release of The Gisburn Witch is only a few days away on June 1st. Over the past couple of weeks I have given you all a sneak peak of the first couple of chapters and today I finally reveal the third.
Anyone interested in ordering the book can get it from the following retailers: Amazon UK / Amazon / Smashwords / Kobo
10th June 1585
Jennet stretched her bare feet out on the soft green grass, digging her toes in firmly to fully enjoy the luxurious sensation. The sky was completely clear and wonderfully blue, causing the sun to shine with a relentless heat, unabated by the cover of occasional clouds. Jennet shifted uncomfortably, feeling the sweat trickling down her back and wishing that she could remove her bodice, even just for a few moments. As a child she would have stripped down to her shift and paddled in the river to obtain some relief from the summer heat, but alas she was no longer a child. Her sixteenth birthday had arrived in March, and if her mind had not noted its significance, her body had certainly responded. Her mother had commented that she barely needed a roll to accentuate the curvature at her waist which seemed to have appeared overnight. Although Jennet had brushed off her comments, remarking that she hardly had need of a roll anyway, being an impractical item of clothing to wear for all but the highest born ladies, she had to recognise that her mother was right, and like it or not, womanhood was now upon her. So, no more jumping in the river on hot days, she thought. She would have to just endure the heat in her bodice, as all the other women undoubtedly did.
“Jennet! Jennet, there you are lass, I’ve been looking for you,” a gruff but kindly voice interrupted her thoughts. Jennet turned to see her father walking towards her, his cheeks rosy, a broad grin spread across his face.
“Father, you look like you’re enjoying yourself,” Jennet replied. Richard Balderston smiled at his daughter and gave a little dance in time to the music being played by the piper a short walk away, spilling some of the ale in his hand as he did so.
“Of course, ‘tis one of my favourite days of the year. Music, dancing, wonderful food, good company, and sunshine, and not forgetting plenty of good ale,” her father added, raising his cup.
The Whitsuntide feast was one of Jennet’s favourite holidays also. Every year the villagers of Gisburn held a feast day, usually the Monday following Whit Sunday, but the day depended upon the favourability of the weather and the agreement of all employers. Gathering in the village, they enjoyed a grand feast to which every house contributed, and some entertainment, usually in the form of local flute and pipe players. It was an opportunity to enjoy the company of family, friends and neighbours while the good weather allowed for some unrestricted outdoor merry-making and was one of the major celebrations of the year, second only perhaps to the Christmas festivities. Over fifty years ago, there had been many more such events in the local social calendar, mostly feast days in honour of various saints, however with the coming of the new religion, as some still called it, many of these had been eroded away from tradition or even banned.
Jennet was too young to be able to remember the old ways, but even in her lifetime there were attempts to further curb local feasts and revels. Just twelve months ago in the neighbouring county of Lancashire, mere miles from Gisburn, Justices of the Peace had prohibited such events from taking place on a Sunday. At the time the news of this had been greeted by much muttering in Gisburn, with many feeling that although this new rule did not apply to them, it was nonetheless fortunate that their main summer feast traditionally took place on a Monday so it could not possibly be threatened if Yorkshire Justices decided to follow suit. The perceived threat to the existence of local feast days, along with their relative rarity, meant that they were cherished and embraced even more whole-heartedly by the local people. For many, Richard Balderston included, this meant that even more food and ale and laughter should be enjoyed than ever before.
“Come and dance with us,” said Richard, offering his hand to his daughter. “Or have something to eat. Have you had enough to eat? There’s still plenty of food.”
Jennet rubbed her stomach, which was pressing up hard against her bodice due to the sheer amount of food she had already consumed that day; delicious, wonderful tasting food, but far more than she would normally eat.
“I couldn’t eat another thing!” exclaimed Jennet. “My belly is too full to manage to dance, sorry.” She shrugged apologetically.
“Alright, lass,” replied her father, “go and talk to your mother, then. She’s been complaining that she’s hardly seen you today. You know she misses you since you went to work at the hall.”
Jennet nodded in agreement. It was true that, although she still lived only a short walk from her family’s home in the village, she saw much less of her mother than before. It was difficult, her days were long and her duties were often all-consuming, leaving her without the necessary time or energy to visit home. This separation from her family had affected her relationship with her mother the most and at times conversation was tense and strained. Jennet struggled to understand why. Her employment at Westby conformed to what was expected of a young Balderston woman, indeed women like her everywhere, and she was getting along well in her position, having shown herself to be helpful and capable, and a credit to her mother. In her naivety, she failed to appreciate that despite her mother’s pride in her achievements, she felt a profound sense of the loss of her only daughter, knowing that she was taking her first steps along a path which would lead to marriage, her own home and eventually daughters of her own. The time they had spent together, side by side in their home completing their day’s work could not be recaptured and Jennet did not truly appreciate the sadness that this caused for her mother.
Alison Balderston was sitting with a small group of other women from the village when Jennet dutifully marched over. Alison gave Jennet a broad smile, revealing as she did so a handful of delicate creases around her mouth and eyes, lines which betrayed a lifetime of both hard work and joy. Jennet shared many of her mother’s features; pale skin which coloured only slightly during the summer months, and bright green eyes, which in the summer sunlight were set free to sparkle with the merriment and laughter of a day spent enjoying the company of family, friends and neighbours.
“Ah, my lass, have you had quite enough of your father’s nonsense? I fear he’s had too much ale.”
Jennet laughed and sat down beside her mother, nodding and smiling a greeting to the other ladies as she did so.
“He’s enjoying himself Mother, just the same as everyone else,” Jennet replied.
“Ever the defender of her father,” her mother replied, half addressing the other ladies with her remark. This roused some brief laughter and a few utterings about typical daughters, sticking up for their fathers. Jennet smiled in response. She couldn’t deny it; as his only daughter, she usually took her father’s side in family disagreements.
“Are you enjoying yourself today, Jennet?” her mother asked, changing the subject, “It’s such a lovely day, it must be nice for you to be spending it outdoors instead of working in the Westby kitchens.”
Jennet nodded. She had not talked to her mother much about her work at the great hall. She had mostly only talked about her training with Goodwife Robinson, recounting tales of making cheese or brewing ale the Westby way, or the first time she helped prepare a banquet for the family and how she was able to indulge a little on the leftover marzipans, candied fruits and a little bit of boiled meat afterwards. However, she had omitted any mention of the walks she had enjoyed out on the estate, especially during the winter months, and her snatched encounters with Tom Lister. She couldn’t really explain why she hadn’t told her; she didn’t think her mother would be particularly disapproving of either activity, but for reasons she couldn’t begin to understand herself, Jennet found herself feeling that these private moments, enjoying the peace and beauty of the Westby estate or the gentle touch of Tom Lister as he held her hand, should remain private.
“You’re quiet this afternoon,” said her mother, interrupting her thoughts, and examining her closely, “but you seem happy enough. Has your father introduced you to anyone today? He seemed keen earlier that you should meet someone, a young man he’d been talking to.”
“Really, Mother? Do you know who?” she asked warily.
Alison shook her head slightly and made a dismissive motion with her hand.
“Oh your father hasn’t really said much to me and I haven’t been properly introduced to the lad although I think I caught sight of him earlier. He’s from Giggleswick, apparently. Name of Preston, I think. Your father seems to have come to know his father and thought you may like to meet him. He’s little older than you but not by many years.”
Jennet’s face betrayed her alarm. For all her mother’s protestations that her only daughter should be in no hurry to marry, and certainly should not marry too young, her father was nevertheless always on the lookout for potential suitors. In one sense, Jennet felt she should be grateful; at least her parents obviously intended to consult her on the matter of choosing her husband and allow her time to get to know any suitors before making a final decision. Plenty of girls were not so fortunate, and were swiftly married to men they either barely knew or frankly detested. Jennet’s mother and father’s marriage had been a good match which was approved of by both their families, but they had also fallen in love by the time they made their vows in church before God, and Jennet believed that both her parents wanted the same thing for their daughter. Nonetheless, she felt alarmed. The casual search for potential suitors was a reminder that she was now grown, and that she should soon be a wife and eventually a mother and shoulder all the responsibilities of keeping a home and nurturing a family. The thought of such responsibilities made her want to hide in the woods, like she was a child again.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Alison Balderston chuckled, recognising the look of horror on her daughter’s face. “He’s not married you off yet. You know your father; he’s just considering your future. But it is the future, Jennet, it’s not happening any time soon.”
Jennet nodded again. Out of the corner of her eye, she spied the arrival of Tom Lister into the village. It was customary for a member or two of the Lister family to make an informal appearance at this village feast, usually after most of the food had been consumed but before the evening merry-making got under way and most of the village folk became the worse for wear. It was late in the afternoon now and the sun was falling lower in the sky, soon to give way to a beautiful sunset and the lighting of candles and torches in the street as the festivities continued for a little while longer. Jennet settled herself into her seat with a cup of ale whilst her mother and her friends chattered around her, absorbed in her own thoughts. She was glad that Tom had obviously been nominated to attend this year; she had seen very little of him through the spring and early summer, having busied herself with her duties as Mistress Lister had instructed, and Tom having spent much of his time with the Greenacres, preparing for his forthcoming nuptials in July. She wondered if she might manage to spend a few minutes in his company today, away from his mother’s watchful eye, for as she saw him, she remembered how much she had missed him.
Later that evening, Jennet took the short walk from the village to her parent’s cottage, on the edge of their farm. With the setting of the sun, the night had grown cool and Jennet had gone to fetch the shawl that she had flung off in the earlier summer heat. From there, she hadn’t decided what to do. Her parents had welcomed her to stay at their cottage for the night; however, it meant rising early to walk back to Westby Hall to start work with Goodwife Robinson. Their day started at dawn, so Jennet would have to leave when it was still relatively dark to get back in time. Alternatively, she could walk back tonight but that would be in the pitch black and she knew her father would not be pleased at her walking in the dark unaccompanied, but at the same time neither he nor her brothers were in any fit condition to walk with her. Jennet sighed. She had had a lovely day, spending precious time with her family and enjoying the merriment that a feast day brings, but it was getting late and she was beginning to tire. She had just decided that she was too fatigued to march back over to Westby and had half-heartedly begun the search for a blanket, when there was a firm knock at the door. She chuckled, certain that it was one of her brothers or her father at the door, who in their drunken stupor had forgotten how to operate the handle.
“You’re lucky I’m here to let you in!” she called. “I’m coming.”
Jennet raced over to open the door, half-preparing to catch the person undoubtedly meandering drunkenly outside. However, to her surprise it was not one of her family, but Tom Lister standing there. Jennet blinked, almost disbelieving.
“Expecting someone else?” Tom asked mischievously, seeing her surprise.
“Er, well, yes I thought it was my father or perhaps Nicholas or William. Sorry, Tom, I wasn’t expecting anyone else at this hour. I had just called home to get my shawl.”
Tom looked over his shoulder nervously. He had good reason: the cottage was close to the village and there would be others passing by on the track at this time of the evening, heading home as the festivities drew to a close. A young Lister lingering on the Balderston doorstep talking to their unmarried daughter would undoubtedly provoke comment, even gossip.
“Yes, well that’s why I called. Sorry to call on you so late, but I was about to head back to Westby and thought I might accompany you, if you were planning to go back tonight also?” Tom asked.
Jennet nodded in agreement. Of course she had just decided that she would stay, but it seemed sensible to go back tonight if Tom was offering to accompany her. It was fortunate that he had stayed later than members of his family normally did. She could smell the ale on his breath when he was speaking to her. She smiled. He must have been enjoying himself, having come without his father watching over him. Jennet was certain that Tom had arrived with a servant, but he appeared to be alone now.
“Can I… can I come in for a few moments?” Tom asked, looking over his shoulder again, “Just while you gather your things for the walk back. If I stand here much longer I’ll be seen and we will be the talk of the village.”
Jennet smiled and nodded again, moving aside to let Tom through the doorway. It seemed strange, seeing him there in her home, a grown man in his finery standing in her parents’ simple cottage. Of course, he had visited before, but that was when they were children; he would barely remember it. It suddenly seemed strange to Jennet that she knew Tom’s home so intimately yet he barely knew her home at all.
“Did you not have a man with you earlier?” Jennet asked.
“Yes, it was Percival, one of my father’s men. Sent to keep an eye on me, I expect. I lost the fellow a while ago, he’d been singing and dancing but, er, it would seem that making merry got the better of him and I left him slumped next to the smithy’s, sleeping. He’ll be in for it when Father gets hold of him in the morning.”
“Are you just going to leave him there?” Jennet asked, slightly aghast. Tom was correct; Percival would be in awful trouble when the Master found out.
“If it means I get to walk back to Westby alone with you, Jennet, then yes by all means,” Tom chuckled, then fell silent as though immediately regretting the bold tone of his words. “I’m sorry, Jennet, I shouldn’t have said that,” he said after a few moments’ silence, “I fear I have also had too much ale tonight. In truth the man is unconscious and between us we would never manage to carry him back to Westby. Indeed it would be more of a scene if we attempted it. I’m afraid we will have to leave him to his fate,” Tom explained, with evident regret.
“Ok,” Jennet agreed, “I will get my shawl and we will leave for Westby now, but I must let my mother know that I am not staying tonight and reassure her that I will be safe as I am travelling back with you.”
Jennet turned to find her shawl and as she did so Tom placed a hand on her shoulder, stopping her abruptly and causing her to turn back to face him. Jennet looked up at him. The dim candlelight danced in his eyes as he gazed down at her intently, dropping his hand from her shoulder and reaching instead for her hand, caressing her fingers.
“You will always be safe with me, Jennet,” Tom spoke softly, but said nothing more. He leaned down towards her face and gently touched her lips with his, once briefly, and a second time with a gentle conviction, moving his hand up into the small of her back to draw her closer to him. Jennet closed her eyes, allowing herself to be washed away into the moment, letting their kiss express everything she felt for Tom, that she had never dared admit even to herself. In the midst of her joy at freeing repressed emotions, however, came a feeling of doubt, even fear, causing her to break away from Tom’s kiss.
“Tom, anyone could walk through that door at any moment!” Jennet exclaimed in a whisper. “Can you imagine if we were caught? You’re soon to be married, to a woman of far gentler breeding than me. Think of the scandal this would cause. Think of what your mother would say!” Her tone was scolding.
For once, Tom was unfazed by the reminder of his reality. He looked unrelentingly into Jennet’s eyes as he spoke. “I would only be sorry for any trouble I caused you, Jennet,” he said. “I know I am to marry, God’s death I have spent these past weeks in hers and her family’s company preparing for the event and attending celebration after celebration in anticipation of our imminent nuptials. It is a good match, as it should be, after all we Listers excel at making those. I have accepted that Jane Greenacres will be my wife and the mother of my children. And she may be of gentler breeding than you, as you put it. However none of this changes the fact that you, Jennet Balderston, are my love. If I could choose, if it was my choice, I would choose you. You’ve always been my dearest friend and now you are the most beautiful, kind and delicate woman I could ever hope to know. I know that I can never have you, but it doesn’t change the fact that I will always love you.”
Jennet was taken aback by his admission. She had never heard Tom speak with such conviction. She had never even heard him curse; he was normally so softly spoken. Tonight there seemed to be fire in his words and his eyes, which burned with a desire for her. Jennet returned his gaze lovingly.
“I love you, Tom, but I don’t know what to say. If we were to become lovers…” She hesitated, her words faltering. She had never spoken such words before, and she grappled with them, unsure how to frame them in the same poetic way that Tom had. She supposed these things came down to a difference of education: tutors taught well-bred boys how to speak eloquently, whilst mothers taught girls how to use the same set of kitchen ingredients with ingenuity. Until now, Jennet had never needed beautiful words.
Tom smiled, and touched her gently on the cheek. “Oh Jennet, no, I would never ask you to do that, my love. For one thing you would end up with child, and I care for you too much to do that to you. No, you must remain chaste and marry, one day. Marry a kind man who will treat you well.”
Suddenly his beautiful words had given way to a compassionate practicality. Jennet felt saddened. Having both declared their love they now had to face the fact that nothing would change, that their realities would remain intact. In that moment, Jennet almost wished that it had all gone unspoken, that the kiss had not occurred. But then, to regret that kiss…no, she would cherish that kiss for the rest of her life. Jennet realised then what Tom already knew: what had happened between them was something to be grateful for, but that it could go no further, and they would have to be content with the memory of it. Tom, seeming to read her mind, articulated her next thought.
“Let’s have our walk back to Westby, Jennet, under the stars and hand in hand, as any young lovers might. Let’s have tonight before we must set our feelings aside and go on with our lives.”
The walk back to Westby Hall that night was one of the most wonderful experiences of Jennet’s life. It was one of those moments that she felt certain she would cherish forever. As soon as the two of them were out of sight of the village, Tom took hold of her hand, kissing it occasionally, and did not let it go until they reached the hall. They walked steadily, stopping a handful of times to embrace and enjoy the moment, relishing the comfort that, for tonight at least, they found in each other. As they approached Westby and were about to part, they were blissfully unaware that Tom’s mother was looking out of an upstairs window, anxious to ensure her son’s safe arrival home. They were unaware, too, that she bore witness to them as they held each other tenderly for the last time, that she saw their final kiss that night before heading to bed. They had been so lost in their moment that they had been unaware of the intruder into it, and they were wholly unprepared for the consequences that intrusion would bring.