The Apothecary’s Apprentice
England is torn by civil war and around the country powerful barons are using the chaos to enrich themselves. At this time, however, the edge of fenland in Cambridgeshire is unaffected by trouble and life goes on as normal.
10-year-old Simon Vasey works in his father’s forge in Reach as an apprentice blacksmith until an accident leaves him disabled. He is taken in by Stephen Mandeville, the local apothecary, who is the only person who believes that Simon can live a full and useful life.
Simon doesn’t want to go. He doesn’t understand why he can’t stay with his family and feels deserted by them. The Stephen the apothecary lives on the far outskirts of the next village, Burwell, in an isolated and run-down manor house. He is respected and feared by the villagers in equal measure – in fact his whole life is a mess of contradictions.
His father was William de Mandeville, a local nobleman, who went to the crusades in 1096 and brought back a wife – a Saracen wife, by whom he had two sons. So Stephen is nobility on the one hand, and on the other descended from a despised enemy. It was his father’s second marriage, so after William’s death most of the lands went to the elder son from his first marriage, Geoffrey de Mandeville – who is now Earl of Essex.
The third brother, Arif, travelled to the holy land in search of his mother’s family, while Stephen stayed behind in the small manor left to him by his father, and studied. He had learned the art of medicine from his mother, and he also began to secretly study alchemy. He soon sold off lands to buy equipment and books, and now lives – just – on a small revenue from some rents and his work as apothecary.
Despite his initial fear and resentment, Simon is fascinated by Stephen and soon grows to love his new work.
But nothing is simple, and two events happen that change everything: a local child disappears from the village and Arif, the other brother returns home, accompanied by his daughter. With his sunburnt face and foreign clothes, he appears outlandish to the villagers, and it doesn’t take long for rumours to start that accuse Arif of taking the child.
But there have been a series of kidnappings in other counties, so (partly for his own safety) Arif is sent to work in the Abbey of Ramsey until the next court sits.
Things don’t go smoothly for Simon back in the workshop. Arif’s daughter, Fatima seems to dislike him and makes it clear that she considers him to be beneath her. After all, back in Egypt, Arif was a wealthy merchant and she had the finest of everything. Simon is a peasant, uneducated and poor.
Meanwhile, more children from the village go missing. Instead proving Arif’s innocence, these new kidnappings spark rumours of witchcraft. How else could he get back to the village to steal the children and return to the abbey before he is missed? Prejudice and hatred mount, until Fatima is attacked by a gang of village boys who say they will burn her as a heretic and a witch. Simon rescues her – proving that his disability is no real handicap. After this, she begins to respect him, and see him as a person, not merely a peasant.
Simon’s father arrives to bring his son back home – afraid that he is consorting with witches – but Simon refuses to go, partly out of loyalty for Stephen and partly through resentment against his family for rejecting him in the first place.
Meanwhile, Arif makes his way back across the fens by barge to attend the court, unaware of all that has happened while he’s been gone. He passes through Reach – and is surprised to find his older brother, the Earl of Essex, staying there.
Unfortunately for him, three children are taken from Reach that night – including Simon’s younger brother. The Earl of Essex puts himself forward as a witness that Arif was travelling through Reach that night. Angry villagers storm the Ness in the morning and Arif is taken away to be executed.
Fatima and Simon are frantic – they know that Arif is innocent and they decide to find out the truth. They sneak out that night to search in the fens, near to where other children were seen before they vanished. They discover a barge where the missing children are being held captive, but get captured themselves in the process. They also discover that Arif is being deliberately framed for the disappearances – his journey through Reach was planned by the real kidnappers.
Meanwhile, Stephen is allowed to Arif and helps him to escape – only to find out that Simon and Fatima have been kidnapped too. Now they have to save the children and solve the mystery of the kidnappings before they are caught by the Sheriff and his men.