Chapter Nine

           The three had barely been on the road for an hour when they crested the hills that overlooked the village of Charing Vale.

“That was fast,” said Dean.

Robin nodded.  “I keep forgetting how close together everything in England is.”

Charing Vale was a small village nestled in a little valley that opened onto the sea.  The green hills rose up sharply around the hamlet from the rocky beach.  Two main roads went through Charing Vale, the one from inland, which ended there, and one that followed the coast.  About half of town’s inhabitants raised sheep on the surrounding hills.  The other half of the populace made their livings as weavers, fishermen and other assorted tradesmen.

The town looked much the same as the other villages, with the houses in the main part of the village built narrow and close together.  Their church was not the same gothic edifice other towns boasted.  This was a square building with a small tower, built entirely of rough stone and with a shingled roof.  Robin guessed correctly that the church had been built fairly recently, and by what would later be called a Puritan.  What had become of the other village church, which had surely been there, Robin never found out.

It was market day and the people from all over the lonely coastland filled the center square of the village to buy and sell their wares.  Robin smiled.  Market day would mean that the inn was busy, and hopefully the innkeeper would be very interested in some extra help.

They found the inn near the center square of the village.  It was built just like the other town buildings, except it was wider and stood apart from its neighbors.  On the side closest to the center square was a flower garden that had once been neat and well kept, but now ran wild.  Behind the house, the stable could be seen, with another neatly laid out garden, this time with vegetables, that had been also left to grow as it willed.  Chickens scratched among the plants with a half-hearted air.  The inn seemed deserted.

“That’s strange,” muttered Robin.  She looked at the sign bearing the picture of a white bear.  “The White Bear.  This must be it.”

“It doesn’t seem to be doing so good,” observed Dean.

Elizabeth shrugged.  “They did say at the market it was the only inn in the vale.”

“Then something fishy is going on,” sighed Robin.

She pounded on the closed front door, braced for action.  There was silence within.  Robin pounded again.

“Anybody there?” she called.

A window opened above and a thin, pinched looking woman poked her head out.

“Be off with you!” she called.  “Don’t you know the inn is closed?”

“They didn’t tell us that at the market,” returned Robin.  “We’re looking for Master John Miller, the cousin of Mistress Anne Ford.  She told us we could find him here, as the innkeeper.”

The woman sighed.  “Wait a moment.  I’ll come down.”

She withdrew her head, and in a couple minutes, the door opened and she admitted the three travelers into the gloomy best room.

“I am Mistress Mary Whiteford,” the woman said.  “Master Miller is my uncle.  He has been very ill since last spring.  I’m the only relation he has living near him so it has fallen on me to nurse him.  I’ve a husband and children of my own to take care of.  It’s been all I could do to keep care of them and Uncle.  That’s why the inn is closed.  You must have come from some distance not to have heard.  It’s been closed since the snow melted.”

“We have come some way,” Robin replied.  “We’re looking for work, and Mistress Ford suggested we come here to work for your uncle.”

“That was kind of Cousin Anne, no doubt.  But there’s no work to be had.  Uncle is better, but he is not well enough to open the inn again.  It would be a mercy if he could.  He hasn’t much left to live on, and my husband is a poor man.”

“We could open the inn and run it for him,” volunteered Dean.

“Mary?” called an older voice.  It quavered, but had plenty of power left in it.  “Mary?  What visitors are there?”

“Two young men and a young woman.”  Mistress Whiteford crossed to the bottom of the stairway and called up.  “Cousin Anne sent them to work for you.”

“Work?” returned the voice with rising enthusiasm.  “Do you mean re-open the inn?  Send them up!  Hurry!  Send them up now!”

“Peace, Uncle!” Mistress Whiteford cried.  “Don’t excite yourself.  You’ll only make yourself sick again.  I’ll send them up if you promise to rest quietly.”

“As you wish,” sighed the voice.

With Mistress Whiteford’s instructions not to excite the old man, Robin, Dean and Elizabeth filed into the bedroom occupied by Master John Miller.  It was apparent that as a youth, he had been a formidable character.  Age had ravaged his long frame, leaving it withered and gaunt.  Still, out of the ancient face peered two bright eyes that darted everywhere and missed little.

“So, my good Cousin Anne sent you.” he said.  “What are your names?”

“I am Robert Parker, and this is my brother Richard Parker.” said Robin.  “But I am called Robin, and he, Dean.  This is our cousin, Elizabeth Wynford.”

“Can you work in an inn?”  The old man watched them.

“Mistress Ford seemed pleased,” Robin replied.

“Then why are you not still in her service?”

Robin smiled.  “Let’s just say it seemed expedient to leave in light of local politics.”

The old man laughed.  “Someone wanted you hanged, did they?”

“We were wrongly accused, sir,” Robin said urgently.

“Oh, I believe you,” chuckled Master Miller.  “Cousin Anne wouldn’t have sent you to me if she did not know you to be honest.  Nor would you have known to ask for me if she hadn’t told you to.  But back to this matter of re-opening the inn.”  Master Miller coughed, then held his chest.  “My heart, you know. I haven’t been able to get out of bed since it first started, just as the snow melted last spring.”  He smiled weakly.  “It seems such a strange thing, not to be able to get around, big healthy fellow, as I’ve always been.  There’s a lot to be done.  The rooms must be swept and aired out, the gardens tended to.  I expect the ale’s gone bad.  That should be the first thing to tend to, I imagine.  Then we’ll need fresh straw and oats in the stable, and flour and other staples to feed the guests.  I can tell you who to go to, or Mary can.  How do you brew the ale?  In the way that Cousin Anne does?  Very good.  Then tend to that immediately.  We’ll open in two weeks.”

“Two weeks?” asked Mistress Whiteford, entering the room with a bowl of soup.  “How?  All the supplies must be bought, and I don’t suppose you’ve given a thought to how you’re going to pay for it.  You can barely afford to feed yourself, let alone three other people.”

Master Miller looked so deflated that Robin felt compelled to speak.

“Good sir, if you will not take it amiss, we have a little money ourselves.” she said.  “We could purchase what’s needed, and once the inn’s running, you could pay us back out of the profits.”

“Borrowing is not a good idea,” snorted the old man.  But need and interest in maintaining his chosen livelihood won out.  “Well, I suppose I might.  Not that I like this type of arrangement.  But maybe it will push you three into working harder.  The more money the inn makes, the sooner you will be repaid.”  He mulled over this new thought.  “Yes.  Yes.  This could be quite satisfactory.  Mary, go prepare the chambers.  And you, young woman, Elizabeth, is it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“How are you at nursing?”

“Well enough, sir.  I spent some months nursing my grandmother before she died.  She said I brought her a great deal of comfort.”

Master Miller smiled with surprising warmth.  “Yes, my child, I’m sure you did.  And you’ll help me back to health.  Mary, when you’re done with the chambers, go back to your children and stay there.  I don’t care to deprive them of their mother any longer.”

“Yes, Uncle,” Mistress Whiteford sighed, torn between her desire to be free of her patient, and her basic distrust of the newcomers.

Mistress Whiteford stayed long enough to make sure Elizabeth knew what she was doing, and to have her brains picked by Robin, who, once committed, was determined to make a success of the venture.

It was barely noon when Robin left the inn to purchase the barley and hops needed to get the ale brewed.  Because of the time needed to ferment, that was the first step.  She had to go some distance, however, to find the farmer Master Miller insisted she go to.  Adding to the difficulty was the handcart she pulled after her.  The farm was in the next valley over, and as Robin went down the steep slope, the cart banged against the backs of her legs.

The farm lay off the small road, surrounded by green pasture land dotted with sheep.  Robin followed the small path about half a mile to the farmhouse.

“Is anyone here?” she called out, startling the chickens.

A middle aged woman appeared from the house.

“Yes?” she asked, slowly.  “And who are you?”

“I am called Robin Parker.  Master John Miller sent me to purchase hops and barley from you.  He insisted I go to no other.”

“Well, it’s a fine thing we have his recommendation.  But isn’t he too ill yet to reopen the inn?”

“Yes.  My brother and I have come to work for him as a kindness to his cousin.  We’re doing the work until he is well enough.”

“That’s a mercy to him.”  The woman turned towards the fields.  “James!”

James, or rather, Master Ashley, appeared within minutes.  He was a stocky man, somewhat browned by the sun.  Even though it was a cool day, perspiration stained his shirt.  He, too, was a little suspicious of Robin until she explained.  Robin wondered what was behind it, but declined to ask.  The couple was friendly enough, even hospitable, as they carried on their business.

The Ashley’s had numerous children, ranging in age from infancy to fifteen.  Robin counted at least seven.  Mistress Ashley insisted on sharing their lunch with Robin.  After they’d eaten, Master Ashley loaded the sacks of barley and hops onto the handcart.  Then the oldest boy, a sturdy youth of thirteen, was instructed to help Robin up the hill with the cart.

With the boy’s help, Robin made good time.  As they reached the top, Robin turned to thank him.

“I don’t dare go further,” he said suddenly.

“Why?” Robin began, but to no avail, as the boy promptly turned away and ran off toward his farm.

Puzzled, Robin concentrated on maneuvering the handcart downhill.  Near the bottom, a group of young men, they appeared to be in their late teens, joined her.

“You’re new here.” observed a dark haired youth, his face scarred by acne or smallpox or both.

“Yes.” Robin nodded.  There was something not quite friendly about this group.  “I am called Robin Parker.”

“Ah.  I am Samuel.”  The dark-haired one indicated his companions as he spoke.  “This is Robert, Edward, Richard, Charles, and John.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, sirs.”  Robin nodded at them as they all walked.

“You haven’t much beard,” observed Edward happily, his beard not being much to speak of.

“Uh, no,” Robin replied.

“Yet you’re so tall,” said Samuel.

Robin shrugged.  But before she could start her story, she was interrupted.

“What’s in the sack?” asked John.

“Barley and hops,” Robin answered.

“To sell?” asked John.

“No.  I’ve just bought them.  I’m bringing them to the inn.”

“The inn?” cried Samuel in delight.  The attitude of the boys changed immediately for the better.  “It’s reopening?  Hurrah!”

“You’ll have to wait a couple weeks.  The ale’s got to be brewed first.”  Robin smiled.

“God speed you on your way!” Samuel said.  “Better still we shall help.  This vale has been too long without a decent tankard of ale.”

Robin was glad enough of the help, although somewhat suspicious of the boys.  But their motives were indeed centered on the ale.  They arrived at the inn in record time, with the barley and hops in excellent shape.  Robin thanked them and sent them off in high spirits.  After taking a deep breath, she turned to the inn and the next step.

Of course, everything had to be discussed with Master Miller, but Robin didn’t mind.  There was something about the old man that caught her fancy.  She sat up late in the evening with him, discussing the inn, at first, then other matters.  The man was ignorant, but only because of the circumstances of his birth.  Even at an age when many elderly people have no intention of learning anything, John Miller was eager for instruction and knowledge.  Robin thought he would have made a fine scientist, had he the education available.

The next day was the Sabbath.  The pastor of the village was a youngish man, approximately in his late twenties, with a mild demeanor and an educated speaking style.

Robin had taken one look at the communion table in the center of the church and guessed at his Puritan leanings.  Between that and his black clothes and the way he launched into the service with almost no ceremony at all, Robin worried that she wouldn’t get along with this fellow any better than she had Pastor Middleton, back in Downleigh.

But Pastor Layton appeared to be cut from different cloth.  He did not speak down to his congregation, nor did his sermon go over their heads.  He challenged without condemning.  Although the other villagers looked suspiciously at Robin, Elizabeth and Dean, Pastor Layton did not.

After the service, he held them in the doorway of the church.  It was pouring down rain outside.  He gazed at Robin strangely.

“Greetings.” he said, shaking Robin and Dean’s hands.  “You are new in our village.  Mistress Mary Whiteford told me of your arrival yesterday.”

“That was kind of her.” Robin replied.

“Well, your kindness in caring for her uncle is not to be overlooked.”  The pastor smiled.  “I am Pastor William Layton. If you would be so kind as to tell Master Miller, I shall call on him this afternoon, as usual.”

“We’ll do that.”  Robin smiled awkwardly, and shifted.  Aside from the recent bad experience, the suspicion of the other villagers made her rather suspicious herself.

Back at the inn, they relaxed in the inn’s best room next to a roaring fire.

“There’s something strange about this place,” grumbled Dean.  “People don’t like us already.”

“They just don’t trust us yet,” replied Robin.  “We’re new here.”

“That’s not quite right,” said Elizabeth.  “True, they don’t trust us, but it’s not because we’re strangers.  There’s something wrong in the village.  People are afraid.  There must be a band of highwaymen or other evil bandits in the county.  Didn’t you see that almost no young girls were at church?  At least none that were not young children, or mothers.  Certainly no comely ones.”

“You mean the people are hiding their women?” Robin mused over this.  “Hm.  I wonder why.”

“As I said, highwaymen,” Elizabeth replied.

“Then why suspect us?” Robin returned.  “We’re obviously not highwaymen.”

“True,” Elizabeth conceded.

“Well, whatever the problem is,” said Dean.  “Maybe we’d better keep Elizabeth under wraps.  I mean, if there’s some sort of danger.”

“You may have a point, Dean,” Robin sighed, and looked at Elizabeth.

She smiled.  “I’ll have enough to do here, don’t worry.  As a matter of fact, I do believe our master has woken.”

Pastor Layton arrived carrying two books just as the bell in the church was tolling three o’clock.  Elizabeth had Robin show him up to Master Miller’s room, then prevailed on Dean to help her bring up food and drink for the guest and the invalid.  As soon as he saw his visitor, Master Miller started struggling to a sitting position.

“Hold on, now,” Robin scolded.  “Let me help you.”

“I don’t want help,” protested the old man.

“I know,” Robin replied, adjusting the pillows.  “But if you don’t ease into more activity, you’re only going to make yourself sick again.  There, the pillows are fixed.  Now, sit up slowly.  I’ll let you do it on your own this time.”

Grumbling, Master Miller slowly pushed himself up.  Robin slid her arms around his chest and pulled him back against the pillows.

Well, Pastor,” Master Miller smiled.  “What have we got today?”

“More of the same, I’m afraid,” replied Pastor Layton.  “It does take so long for things to get out here in the country.  I did get one special item from my bishop.  It’s a pamphlet from one of John Donne’s sermons.  They were just published about two years ago.  My bishop says they make excellent reading and are good for study.  He’ll send me the volumes as he can procure them.  But I think I shall have to ask His Lordship for them.  It costs far too much to send them, and I doubt my bishop will visit the vale any too soon.  There’s just too much going on, with the Parliament’s militia and all.”

“And your bishop is calling for it as strongly as My Lord, the Earl?”  Master Miller grinned.

“Of course,” replied the pastor.

“If he values his neck and his post, that is.”

Pastor Layton laughed.  “Perhaps.  I know my bishop to be a most sincere man.  But come, I know you are just jesting with me.”

“I am?”  Master Miller’s eyes twinkled, so full of the challenge that Robin was hard-pressed to tell if the man had been joking with the pastor or not.

“Yes, you are.  You are as staunch a supporter of the Parliament as ever lived in this valley.  But I also know you will say anything to get a good debate going.”  The pastor smiled at Master Miller with genuine fondness.  “Unfortunately, today I am somewhat out of temper for it.  Young Master William Cowly was exceptionally vocal during his baptism.  I have already read the sermon, and will leave it for you to read at your leisure.  Then next Sabbath we can argue it.”

“That sounds good.”  Master Miller nodded.  “And what other books do you have for me?”

“Just the Donne poems and the Shakespeare.”

“Shakespeare?” asked Dean, appearing in the doorway.

He carried five bowls, spoons and some cloths.  Elizabeth came in behind him, carrying a large black pot, and a tray loaded with bread, cheese, two pitchers, and a roasted chicken.  Robin got up and shifted a small chest around to make a table with the tray.

“Will you dine with us, Pastor?” Elizabeth asked.  “I’m afraid the cheese is still green.  We only arrived Friday.  I’m surprised the cow would milk.  But she did, and I made the cheese yesterday.  We’ve no ale, either, but the water is quite good.”

“Considering the circumstances, you’ve laid before me quite a splendid feast, indeed.”  Pastor Layton smiled.  “I shall be glad to share it with you.  But first, let us thank Our Father in Heaven for His goodness in giving it to us.”

Everyone bowed their heads as Pastor Layton made a good long prayer, giving thanks for a great many things besides the food.  Robin’s stomach gurgled as they said “Amen” was said, and Dean most irreverently watched the chicken.  But before he could eat, he had to run downstairs to fetch the tankards he had forgotten.  Elizabeth busied herself serving the pastor, while Robin prepared Master Miller’s bowl, taking care to give him small portions and only the leanest bits of the chicken.

“No cheese?” he complained, as he received his bowl.

Robin tucked a cloth under his chin.  “No.  You know why not.”

“Why not?” asked Pastor Layton, as the old man snorted.

“Because cheese is full of the bad humours that hurt his heart,” Robin replied.

“I’ve never heard that,” replied the pastor.

“My father held it to be true,” said Robin hesitantly.  “He was most skilled in herbs and medicines.”

“Your father?”  Pastor Layton looked as though he was trying to make sense of something very difficult.  “Perhaps you are related.  Forgive me, Master Robin.  You remind me of a lady I knew when I was a student in Oxford.  She, too, was very skilled in the healing arts.  Lady Eleanor of Hawkesland.  Her husband was the Earl, Lord James Haverfield.”

Robin shrugged.  “Never heard of them.”

“You are very like her in speech and manner.  Even as I look at you, I see how your faces seem much the same.”

“Well…”  Robin paused.  Her Ladyship could have been an ancestor, but it would hardly do to say so.  “If Her Ladyship is a relative, she’s a distant one.  Anyway, Master John’s heart is so weak, we have to be very careful of what he eats.”

The pastor mused over that bit of information, while Elizabeth rolled her eyes behind his back.  Robin had insisted that she not give Master Miller any salt, instead directing Elizabeth to feed him garlic and onions.  Elizabeth thought the whole idea silly.  Salt was an important staple to her.  How were they to preserve any meat without it?  They’d need the meat for the coming winter.

Then there was the prohibition on cheese, which Robin said was naturally loaded with salt and bad fats.  Master Miller was also forbidden to drink whole milk.  Robin had Elizabeth skim the cream very carefully from the top, first.  Elizabeth didn’t think much of Robin’s strange ideas, but conceded because she couldn’t argue against them.

Dean appeared with the tankards, and they all fell to the meal.

“Hey, books,” Dean observed as he collected the pastor’s bowl.

“Yes.”  Pastor Layton smiled.  “The poetry of John Donne and the works of William Shakespeare.”

“Shakespeare?” Dean asked delightedly.  “Can I look?”

“Certainly.”  Pastor Layton handed him the book, which was quite large.

Dean opened the cover, and whistled low under his breath.  “Wow.  A real First Folio.”

“I wasn’t aware there were any others.”  Pastor Layton looked puzzled.

“Oh.”  Dean caught Robin’s warning glare.  “Well, um. Maybe there aren’t.  Anyway, this is pretty bitchen.”

“I’m glad you like it,” replied the pastor.  “Do you read much?”

“Only when I have to.”  Dean grinned.  “Well, not really.  I like Shakespeare.”  He turned a few pages.  “Woh.  This is hard to read.”

“Is it?”  Robin came over and took the book from him.  The type was in that difficult old English style with all the s’s looking like f’s.  The language was not translated.  “That’s interesting.”

“What is?” asked Dean.

“Oh, nothing.” Robin replied.  “I’ll tell you later.  In the meantime, the pastor’s time is very valuable, and we should let him spend it with Master Miller.”

She returned the book to the pastor.

“You don’t all have to leave,” grumbled Master Miller.

“I’d best clear away these dishes,” said Elizabeth.

Dean jumped up.  “I’ll help.”

Master Miller and Pastor Layton both gave him an odd look as he filled the tray and picked it up.  Elizabeth smiled indulgently.

In a few seconds, Elizabeth cleared the room of dishes and Dean.  The afternoon whiled away peacefully.  Robin listened as the two men discoursed, occasionally interjecting a comment here and there.  The local baron, one Lord Roger Featherton had sponsored Pastor Layton’s excellent education.  The pastor was great friends with Master Miller, who had not had the same opportunity for an education.  But instead of begrudging it of the pastor, Master Miller took advantage of it, receiving the pastor’s instruction gladly.

Of course, in spite of being uneducated, Master Miller could frame an argument in the best academic style.  Robin had to stop herself from laughing when Pastor Layton was forced to concede to Master Miller’s better logic.  Then she found herself drawn into an argument.  She never noticed that Dean and Elizabeth did not return.

All too soon, it seemed, the village clock tower tolled the hour of five o’clock, and Pastor Layton stood and stretched.

“I must take my leave,” he said.  “My wife has surely made my supper, and will be most distressed if I’m not there to eat it.  Good Master Parker, you will have to continue joining our weekly discourses.”

“Thank you, sir.”  Robin smiled.

“And bring Marlowe’s ‘Passionate Shepherd’ next week,” said Master Miller.  “We’ll see how Donne stacks up to it.”

“How about Raleigh, also?” asked Robin.  “If you have it.  Since ‘The Bait’ is in reply to Marlowe, it’s only fair to compare it to another reply.”

“Raleigh was no poet,” snorted Master Miller.  “A Godless man.”

“So was Marlowe,” Robin shot back.

“I’ll leave you two to continue the debate.”  Pastor Layton cut in, laughing.

Robin left to show him out.  She finally noticed that Dean and Elizabeth had disappeared.  But her mind was too full of Bait and Fleas and pleasant discourse to care where her brother was.

The next day, while Dean cleaned out the stables, Robin turned to the vegetable garden.  Supplies were very low, and while they still had quite a bit of money, it wouldn’t last forever.  Robin decided to see what she could salvage.

She harvested a fairly good crop of cabbages, as well as carrots.  She was pulling up onions when shadows fell across the garden.  She looked up to see the six young men from two days before gathered around her.

“Hello,” she said, sitting back on her haunches.

“Not brewing any ale today?” asked Samuel.

“This afternoon,” Robin replied.  “We figure the inn should be open in about two weeks.”

“Should we tell him about…” started Richard, but the others shushed him.

“About what?” asked Robin.  She stood.

“About, well,” Samuel hedged, then shrugged.  “There’s another inn two vales to the north of here.  They’ve been doing very well since Master Miller’s illness.  The owner won’t like it that his inn has re-opened.  But we don’t mind.”

“Don’t like traveling that far, huh?” Robin grinned.

“That, and the innkeeper charges too much for bad ale,” said John.

“Too bad for him, then,” Robin returned.  “My brother, cousin and I brew very good ale, and a penny a tankard isn’t too much, is it?”

The boys cheered.  Elizabeth came outside from the kitchen.

“Robin, where’s Dean?” she asked.

“In the stable.” Robin replied.

Elizabeth left.  The boys stared after her.

“Robert,” hissed Edward.  “Warn them.”

Robert looked at Samuel, who nodded.

“They’re not his spies,” Samuel said, derisively stressing the “his”.  “She’d be with him, if they were, and they wouldn’t be opening the inn.”

“Who are we talking about?” Robin asked.

“Master Thomas Blount,” replied Robert.  “He’s Lord Roger Featherton’s steward, and a more crooked man never walked the earth.  You’d better keep your cousin hidden.  Any pretty creature he sees is soon taken away to be a lady in waiting for My Lady Featherton, or so he says.  But most have returned beaten and carrying his bastards.”

“Not exactly a nice person,” Robin replied.  “I suppose any one new here is probably one of his spies.”

“Many times,” said Samuel.  “We have to always be cautious.  Worse still, there are those of our neighbors who will not refuse payment from him for information.  The wise farmer in this vale only leaves his farm for market day, and then does not bring his best goods.  Master Blount collects the taxes, and is not afraid to collect more than his due, if he thinks he can get it.”

“Can’t someone complain to Lord Roger?” Robin asked.

“How?” snorted Charles.  “He’s forever with the Earl, My Lord of Essex.”

“Besides, we have,” said Samuel.  “Or one of the braver villagers did.  Master Blount simply bought some false witnesses, and the other man was put in the stocks.”

“His men wrecked my father’s grain bin,” John complained.  “Then Master Blount demanded more money to ensure it wouldn’t happen again.”

Robin sighed.

“Protection money, pimping, his men control several gambling rackets,” Robin told Dean and Elizabeth that evening at supper.  “I swear this guy makes the Mafia sound like nice guys.”

“The Mafia?” Elizabeth asked.

“A bunch of organized criminals, and they are really rotten fellows,” Robin explained.

“So that’s where all the girls are,” said Dean.

“And Elizabeth should be too,” Robin added.  “If it isn’t too late.  Apparently he’s got spies all over.”

“I’d like to see him try to take Elizabeth away,” Dean threatened.

“Dean, here we can’t afford to play any modern tricks,” Robin warned.

“Well, there’s other ways.”  Dean shrugged.

“We’ll see,” grumbled Robin.

Chapter Eight

“Are you sure you’ve never seen Master Neddrick before?” Robin asked for the fifth time.

“No, nor can I imagine what he would want with me.” Elizabeth was clearly tired of the question, but bore Robin’s pressing with patience. After all, Elizabeth was just as curious and confused by Master Neddrick’s professed interest in her as Robin was.

The noon-day sun bore down on the travelers as they trudged along the road to the coast. They had spent the morning walking through the neighboring fields, but it soon became clear that no one in Downleigh had seen fit to search them out. Robin decided to give up worrying about Master Neddrick and focus on getting to Charing Vale.

Most of the land on either side of the road was either farm or pasture land. Robin remembered reading that most of England had been deforested since the Middle Ages or the Renaissance or something like that. Yet, here and there, small woods still stood amid the fields.

As the afternoon wore on, a brisk wind slid through the chinks in their clothes, and dark clouds piled up in the sky.

“Looks like we’re in for some rain,” Robin sighed.

“Think we could stay in an inn tonight?” Dean asked.

“I don’t know. We don’t have that much money, and we haven’t seen a lot of villages.” Robin glared at the sky. “We may not have a choice.”

Evening approached and the three left the road for the cover of another small stand of trees with a clearing in the middle. Robin found sufficient wood just as Elizabeth finished laying out the blankets. Dean re-entered the clearing with a good fat rabbit and Elizabeth reached for the pot.

“You’re back fast,” she commented as she left for the nearby stream.

“Just a naturally good hunter, I guess.” Dean grinned.

Elizabeth laughed and ran off into the trees.

“Got lucky, huh?” Robin smiled from where she was setting up the fire ring.

“Yep.” Dean dropped the rabbit next to her.

Elizabeth screamed from beyond the trees. Dean started in that direction, but Robin held him back.

“Get the blankets!” she ordered as she grabbed the bags. “We can’t afford to lose them.”

Dean had them slung over his shoulder in an instant. He was about to dash off when Robin held him back.

“Silently!” she hissed. “We could walk into a trap if we’re not careful, and that won’t do her any good.”

Dean followed Robin as she slunk down to the stream. From a screen of bushes they saw two men push Elizabeth down a path on the other side of the water. Robin nodded and silently she and Dean followed.

Ten minutes later they stood in a brake of trees and bushes around a large camp. Robin counted twelve men, most of whom were filling their tankards with ale from a medium-sized cask. The camp seemed to be permanent. There was a crude shack built on the other side. Primitive tents sheltered the area next to the shack. In the middle of the camp was a huge roaring bonfire. Elizabeth was tied with her hands behind her to a post next to the shack.

“Now aren’t you glad we didn’t go rushing down to that stream?” Robin whispered. “There may even have been a couple more waiting at our camp to take what we left behind.”

Dean nodded sullenly. “But what are we going to do? We can’t fight all those guys. I don’t want to wait until they’ve gone to sleep. They might rape her before then.”

“These guys are thieves, not rapists. There’s a whole different psychology involved.”

“Not when they’re drinking. And look at how they’re putting it away. I swear, Robin, I’ve seen perfectly decent normal guys turn into monsters when they’re drunk. And these guys aren’t even that good.”

“You do have a point,” Robin sighed. “But the two of us aren’t going to be much good against twelve of them.”

“If only there were more of us. Wait a minute.” Dean grinned. “What if we made them believe there was more of us?”

“How, Dean?” Robin returned.

“We could yell, maybe. Or…” Dean dove for the bag he was carrying. “We could use my iPhone.”

“Are you going to put the headphones on each every one of those guys?”

“No. I brought the speaker dock. Here.” Dean pushed the unit into place between the two small speakers.

“Deanie, boy, I do believe you’re onto something.”

“Damn. I don’t think I downloaded any concert stuff on here.” Dean pressed through the menu.

“Never mind. Anything on there should scare the pants off of those fellows.”

“Just because you don’t like it.”

Robin rolled her eyes. “It has nothing to do with like. Elevator music would terrify these guys.”

“Hell, it scares me.”

Robin paused. “You’ve got a point.”

Dean squinted as he quickly pressed the menu button. “Damn. I can’t see the read out that well. I think I got some Motley Crue on here.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Robin said through gritted teeth. “Just play something.”

Dean shrugged and pressed the play button. The screeching tones of Van Halen filled the air. The men in the camp looked up thunderstruck.

“Panama?” Robin asked. “That’s way old.

Dean shrugged. “It’s a good tune.”

Elizabeth started at the sound of the music, then laughed.

“I told you!” she yelled. “My brothers have come. They are very powerful sorcerers and they will destroy you all!”

Robin and Dean stepped into the camp. The setting sun and the firelight threw strange shadows on their faces. Thunder rumbled over from the gathering clouds, underscoring the wailing iPhone. The men didn’t wait. They threw down their weapons and ran full out. Robin and Dean let them. Within seconds the camp was clear.

Shaking her head, Robin walked over to Elizabeth and untied her. Dean went to the bushes and retrieved the iPhone.

“Nice build up you gave us,” Robin said to Elizabeth. “I’m glad you kept your head.”

“Hell, she’s heard it before,” said Dean. “She knows it can’t hurt you.”

“Just your eardrums,” replied Robin.

Elizabeth shrugged. “I guess one can get used to anything.”

Robin laughed. “Let’s check this place out.”

They found a huge buck being skinned in one of the tents. In the shack, under some recently overturned earth, was a small chest. Robin had a fair idea of what was inside. But the sound of thunder again made her decide to eat dinner first. They feasted on the buck, washing it down with plenty of ale from the cask.

In preparation for the foul weather ahead, Robin built a small fire in the shack next to the door, and collected all the discarded weapons.

“Those men aren’t going to want to stay out on a night like this,” she explained. “So we’d better keep a good watch. We may as well have the fire, since one of us is going to be up watching. It’ll be too cold otherwise.”

“Fine,” said Dean. “Can we open the chest now?”

“Why?” asked Robin. “It’s too dark to see anything. Why don’t I sleep first?”

“But the chest.”

Robin glared. “We’ll open it tomorrow morning.”

Dean reluctantly agreed. Robin bedded down and went to sleep. Elizabeth waited up with Dean for a while until sleep overcame her. Around midnight, Dean decided that the patter of the rain on the roof was making him too drowsy, and he woke up Robin.

An hour later, as Robin poked the fire, she heard a twig snap outside the shack. Instantly, she was fully alert. She crawled over to Dean and shook him.

“Ermph?” he asked sleepily.

Robin put her finger to her lips. Dean blinked, then nodded. Another twig snapped, and whispering could be heard. Dean sat up and drew his sword. Robin drew hers also and removed a flaming branch from the fire.

The door flew open. Robin thrust the branch at the man in the doorway. He screamed and dodged. Others stampeded from the camp. But three were too wet and too worried about their loot to worry about sorcerers. Only one had a sword. The other two were armed with belt knives.

These two attacked first. Robin blunted the slashing blades with her sword and jabbed with her burning branch. The men backed off. Robin forced them out of the shack.

Dean burst out after her. The swordsman took him. Dean parried the thrust with a gulp. It suddenly dawned on him that he was fighting with swords that could really cut. He charged forward, hoping his size would at least intimidate his opponent.

The swordsman was intimidated, but greed conquered his fears and he met the charge with a parry and a vicious thrust. Dean barely dodged in time. He slashed at the swordsman. The swordsman dodged that, and thrusted. Dean parried. The swordsman thrusted again and again. Dean parried both thrusts, then thrusted himself. It was blocked. Dean felt his opponent’s steel swish by his belly. He spun around and started in with a quick series of slashes and jabs. It was all the swordsman could do to parry them.

Meanwhile, the two men knife men danced just beyond the point of Robin’s sword. One distracted her and the other tried to move in. In a split second she slashed at the one and thrust the burning branch at the other. But the way her hand grew warmer told her that the branch was burning fast.

The men pushed her back further and further, moving in and dodging. Robin felt the cool of the forest against her back. She dared not step out of the camp, where possibly the others lay in wait. Leaves crunched underneath her feet and gave her an idea.

She was under one of the makeshift tents. One of the men lunged. She parried, then dropped her branch into the dead leaves. They burned hot and fast. Robin dodged around the flames. The men circled, utterly confused. As the flames died down, Robin cut the ropes holding the tent up. It fell and trapped the men.

Dean was still dancing around the swordsman. He had pushed Dean back in a strong counterattack, but had yet to draw blood. Dean was finally backed up against a tree. The swordsman lunged. Dean dodged, and with a quick spin, pounced on the swordsman, and landed a good strong blow on the side of his head.

Out of nowhere, it seemed, the music of Van Halen filled the night. Dazed and frightened, the swordsman stumbled into the darkness. His two friends slashed their way out of the tent and ran off also. Gasping, Robin and Dean staggered back to the shack.

Elizabeth was sitting in the middle of the room holding the iPhone, still hooked onto its speakers.

“You do say it’s magic anyone can work once they know how,” she said.

Robin sat down heavily on the floor and laughed. Dean staggered over to Elizabeth, flopped down next to her and hugged her.

“I would have worked it sooner but I’ve never seen exactly how you worked the spell,” Elizabeth sighed. “You’re not angry with me, are you?”

“No!” Robin wiped the tears from her eyes. “Your timing was perfect. We had them down and you put on the finishing touch to get them good and scared and out of here.”

“I’m proud of you, Elizabeth.” Dean squeezed her again.

“Why don’t you go back to sleep, Dean?” Robin yawned. “I’ll finish my watch.”

“Oh, all right.” Dean crawled back to his corner and flopped down. “Goodnight, gang.”

In the light of the early morning, the three of them searched the camp again. No more chests or other signs of loot were found. As she promised, Robin opened the chest as they breakfasted on leftover venison.

It was mostly good jewelry, among a small collection of copper, silver and a few gold coins. Dean was all for taking the whole thing, but Robin said no.

“That jewelry could be identified,” she explained. “And no one will believe that we found it.”

“I guess not,” sighed Dean. “But can we take the money?”

“We may as well,” conceded Robin.

“Here, I’ve a purse,” said Elizabeth, pulling a small bag from her bodice.

“We’ll split it among us,” said Robin. “That way if one of us gets robbed, we’ve still got something.”

“At least we’re rich,” chortled Dean.

“We’ve barely a few pounds,” said Elizabeth, and then she smiled. “But we are more comfortable.”

“Do you think we could stay in inns from now on?” Dean asked hopefully.

Robin looked at Elizabeth, who nodded. Dean cheered.

“We’d better get hustling,” Robin said picking up the two big bags. “People are a lot braver by daylight, and I don’t feel like fighting those bandits again.”

“Me neither!” Dean grabbed one of the bags from his sister and they were off.

Lois Winston on the Mystery of Crafts

Lois Winston

My guest post today, Lois Wilson, writes one of the funniest series out there, featuring amateur sleuth Anastasia Pollack, a craft editor at a major magazine. If you’ve ever thought that a mystery with crafts or recipes had to be tooth-achingly twee, come meet Anastasia. Trust me, it takes real talent to mix mop dolls and scrapbooking with gangsters, communists, and spies – and those are the good guys! 

I started my career as a romance author, but in my day job I’m a designer. For several decades (more than I’m willing to admit at this stage in my life!), I’ve designed needlework for kit manufacturers, magazines, book publishers, and the world’s leading producer of embroidery floss. One day about twelve years ago an editor told my agent she was looking for crafting mysteries. My agent immediately thought of me and asked if I’d be interested in trying my hand at writing one. I jumped at the challenge, and the rest is history.

First, I did a bit of research to see what types of crafting mysteries were being published. I discovered all of them featured one particular craft and most took place in craft shops or a crafter’s studio. With just about every craft already covered and many crafts represented in multiple series (yarn and knitting mysteries galore!), I decided to break from the pack. I came up with Anastasia Pollack, the crafts editor at a women’s magazine. That way, rather than my mystery centering round a single type of craft, I could feature different crafts in each book. No other crafting mystery author had done that.

When you write a crafting mystery series, readers expect you to include craft projects, just as authors who write culinary mysteries are expected to include recipes. Recipes are easier. They don’t require charts or diagrams or step-by-step how-to photos the way many crafts do.

Right off the bat I was presented with a dilemma. Knowing the chances of a publisher agreeing to include photos in the books were slim to none, I had to come up with crafts that could be made with only written directions. This is easy if the craft is knitting or crochet. It’s far more difficult for other crafts.

For Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun, the first book in the Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries, I chose to feature general crafts. Anastasia is working on two different magazine features in this book, one for June weddings and one for Fourth of July celebrations. I included directions for appliqué embellished bridal tennis shoes and birdseed roses for the wedding crafts. For the Fourth of July crafts I featured recycled jeans placemats, clay pot candles, and a decoupaged flag tray.

After the first book, I settled on one type of craft for each book. Death by Killer Mop Doll includes directions for making mop dolls and string doll ornaments. Revenge of the Crafty Corpse features projects made with fabric yo-yos, and Decoupage Can Be Deadly includes (what else?) decoupage crafts. In A Stitch to Die For I went with knit and crocheted baby blankets. Scrapbook of Murder is the newest book in the series. For this book, rather than include a specific craft project, I’ve featured a series of scrapbooking tips.

Now I have to start thinking about a plot and a craft for the next book in the series. Any suggestions?

You can find out more about Lois Winston at her website, www.loiswinston.com or read Anastasia’s blog. You can find Scrapbook For Murder at Barnes and Noble, iTunes, Kobo, and Amazon.

Chapter Seven

That night, it rained, a steady, drenching rain. Fortunately, there was only one guest that evening, and he was able to go into the one room that didn’t have a leak in the roof. Robin found pans for the other leaks.

But when the next day dawned clear and bright, Mistress Ford insisted that Robin and Dean finally repair the roof.

Robin had been putting off the job simply because she had no idea how to do it, and she didn’t want to ask anyone. After all, everybody had roof leaks, so the odds were good that it was a pretty common task.

Dean settled the matter with his usual ignorant grace. He asked Mistress Ford. She was amused, but expected such a reaction from Dean. Robin smiled, and listened.

The job took all of the morning and lasted well into the afternoon. They had just finished repairing the last leak when they heard the shouting. From the roof top Robin saw the men gathering near the church. They carried swords as well as clubs and other tools.

“What on earth?” Robin muttered, and hurried down the ladder.

Mistress Ford and Elizabeth emerged from the kitchen with worried frowns.

“What’s all the shouting about?” Mistress Ford asked.

“I don’t know,” Robin replied.

“I don’t know if I wanna find out,” said Dean, who had come down the ladder behind his sister. “Those guys look like they’re gonna start busting something up.”

Robin explained about the men.

“Dean, fetch your sword. You, too, Robin,” said Mistress Ford. “We’ll pray they don’t come down here, but we’d best be prepared. Lock up the stable. Elizabeth, you and I had better get plenty of water ready from the well. There could be a fire.”

The two guests at the inn were not happy about the approaching riot, but neither felt inclined to do any more traveling that day. They did ask Dean to see that their horses were saddled in the event a quick departure was necessary. Dean obliged.

Mistress Ford forbade Dean and Robin to get involved unless the inn was attacked, although they’d already assured her they had no intention of doing so.

Several of the women slowly made their way to the inn, along with the smallest children. It was almost as if they knew the men were going to stay on the far end of the village.

“Master Leaton died,” said Mistress Loomis, although Robin had no idea which of the two Loomis brothers she was married to.

“Is anyone attending Mistress Leaton?” Mistress Ford asked.

“Mistress Blethen,” replied Mistress Southwood. “And her daughters.”

None of the women, however, were quite sure how the fighting began, just that it had.

The hours eased past slowly. The fighting remained on the far side of the village. Even with all the weapons, there were few injuries. The fight burned itself out late that night, when Master Greenfield at last made himself heard over the noise.

Even with the night’s unrest, Master Leaton’s funeral was still held the next morning and most of the village attended, uneasily at peace with each other for the moment. Pastor Middleton had the decency not to bring up the political issues that had been at the center of the riot. Robin could see he didn’t want another one.

That Sunday, Robin had to give Pastor Middleton credit for finding a topic for his sermon that would unite the villagers. The only problem was the topic he chose: witchcraft. Later that afternoon, Dean scoffed. But Robin was worried. The pastor’s eyes had focused on her during some of the more accusatory parts.

Robin spent the next day completely on edge, just waiting for the townspeople to rise up and arrest her. Or even hang her straight out. But when nothing had happened by Tuesday afternoon, Robin began to relax.

Which was probably why Master Ford’s bizarre behavior caught her so completely off guard. The man had never moved quickly. The times he had wandered off and gotten lost, he had gotten away because no one was watching him, not because he could move with any speed.

Robin was weeding in the garden when the howling began. It came from behind the stable, but by the time Robin was on her feet, Master Ford was tearing into the center of the village, his doublet and boots flying as he went.

“Dean!” Robin called as she chased after. “Bring a blanket!”

Dean had already seen the old drunk’s shirt flying and ducked back into the stable, grabbed the first blanket he could get a hand on and hurried out after Robin.

They caught up with Master Ford near the town well. He’d lost his breeches and was just about to take off his drawers.

“Maggots!” Master Ford screamed, trying to tear the invisible bugs off of him. “Maggots! Get them off of me! Get them off of me!”

Robin approached slowly. “Master Ford, it’s okay. We’ll get them off. Just hold still.”

“No!” Master Ford’s eyes widened in terror as he saw Robin. “Get away from me, demon. Get away!”

“There’s no demon here, Master Ford,” said Dean, with an oddly jovial lilt to his voice. He walked casually up to the terrified man. “Honest. It’s just me and Robin.”

“Maggots,” Master Ford whimpered.

“Nah,” said Dean. “We’ll take care of it. Here, get this blanket on and we’ll get you home. You’ll be fine.”

Master Ford let Dean wrap him in the blanket. Dean picked him up and cradled him as he and Robin walked back to the inn, with Robin picking up Master Ford’s clothing as she went.

The street was empty, but Robin’s skin prickled with the frightened stares of the villagers.

Dean bedded Master Ford down in on of the guest rooms.

“Shit, that was lousy timing for a case of the DT’s,” Robin grumbled as she brought in Master Ford’s clothes.

“Those weren’t the DT’s.” Dean frowned as he looked down at the now sleeping drunk.

“Then what the hell were they?”

Dean shrugged. “I don’t know. But the DT’s happen when you’re in withdrawal, and I saw Master Ford drinking up from one of the cellar casks not an hour ago.”

Robin dropped Master Ford’s boots next to the bed. “Something weird is going on here.”

“I’ll say.” Dean frowned again. “You know, I thought I heard someone talking to Master Ford behind the stable right before it happened.”

“Hm.” Robin turned and went out to the back side of the stable, with Dean ambling along behind.

Sure enough, it was clear that Master Ford had not been the only person back there.

“Look at these two sets of tracks.” Robin pointed them out. “And there’s been something of a struggle here. But where do the hallucinations come into it? Could somebody have doped him, you think?”

“How would I know?” grumbled Dean.

“It would have had to act awfully quickly. You know of anything that acts really quickly?”

“Why are you asking me?” Dean groaned. “I don’t do that shit.”

Robin rolled her eyes. “You volunteered at that rehab place, you said?”

“Oh.” Dean thought, then shrugged. “I don’t know, Robin. I mean, IV works pretty fast, but hallucinations? I don’t know. I mean, they don’t have LSD here, do they?”

“I doubt that.” Robin went back around to the inn’s yard. “But I seem to remember something about some kind of rye mold that caused hallucinations or some kind of craziness. But no one’s growing rye around here. Besides, it would be affecting more people than just Master Ford.” She shook her head. “It just doesn’t make sense, unless someone’s looking for a good excuse to get us in trouble.”

It was Dean’s turn to roll his eyes. “Oh, don’t get started on that witchcraft thing again. Even Mistress Ford says the only people that get accused are poor old women with no one to take care of them.”

Robin sighed. “You’re probably right.”

Still, an uneasy feeling grabbed hold of her gut and wouldn’t let go.

Fortunately, the inn remained empty of guests. Mistress Ford shrugged and sent Dean and Robin to the stable just as it grew dark. Neither of the two were sleepy.

“So now what?” Dean asked, flopping back onto the hay.

“We twiddle our thumbs, I guess,” replied Robin. “There’s not much else we can do in the dark.”

“You know, I don’t think I’ll ever take an electric light bulb for granted again.”

Robin started. “What’s that?”

Dean was about to tease her, when the sound reached his ears.

“It’s someone running,” he said. “Sounds like he’s headed this way.”

“Uh, oh.” Robin sat up. “You hear that rumbling? It sounds like that riot’s about to break out again.”

Dean swung himself down from the loft and looked out the hole in the stable’s back wall toward the village.

“There’s a whole bunch of torches gathered down by the church,” he said.

“Terrific,” grumbled Robin, swinging down to the ground herself. “More trouble.”

Mistress Ford appeared at the other door with Elizabeth, their hair down and flying.

“Robin, Dean, hurry!” Mistress Ford hissed. “You three must flee.”

“What’s going on?” asked Dean.

“You’ve been accused of witchcraft!” Mistress Ford replied. “The men are gathering to arrest you.”

“We’re not witches!” Dean protested.

“That doesn’t mean a damn thing!” snapped Robin. She turned on Mistress Ford. “Are you sure that’s what’s going on? How do you know?”

“Young Master Loomis,” Mistress Ford said quickly. “He just came running.” She stopped and sniffed. “There have been rumors, but most paid them no mind. Then Sabbath past, Pastor Middleton, and then today, when my good husband called you demon. Master Loomis said most think it’s nonsense, but the pastor is insisting.”

Robin scurried up the ladder to the loft and gathered together hers and Dean’s belongings.

“Well, I’m not doing time.” Dean grumbled.

“They’ll hang you, idiot!” Robin growled, lowering the two sacks into Elizabeth’s arms.

Dean swore loudly.

“I agree.” Robin swung herself down from the loft. “But we’d better keep quiet. Mistress Ford, are you sure they won’t accuse you?”

She shook her head. “They won’t. Trust me. But you must hurry. You can take the road toward the coast to the fork, then take the road heading northeast. I’ve a cousin in a town called Charing Vale. It’s on the coast. He runs the inn there, The White Bear. His name is Master John Miller. Tell him I sent you. He’ll take you in and give you work. Here’s bread and cheese and some other things for the journey, and your wages.”

“Thanks,” Robin’s voice suddenly choked.

She reached out and held the matron and kissed her cheek. Dean quickly did the same. Elizabeth was held a minute longer. There was a soft rustle from the back side of the stable outside, and on top of that, the rumble of angry yelling.

“I hear the men!” Mistress Ford started and released Elizabeth. “Quickly!”

“Right,” whispered Robin as she grabbed Elizabeth’s hand.

They ran across the yard and ducked behind the trees on the other side of the garden. Robin had them all lay flat on their stomachs.

“They’re too close, they’ll see us leave,” she whispered to the other two.

They heard Mistress Ford wailing in the yard.

“Such horrors I’ve seen!” she cried out as the men came up. “Most terrible wonders! They were witches. They heard you coming, and I saw them all mount their ravens and they flew away before my very eyes!”

“Which way?” demanded Pastor Middleton.

“To the north, I think, but only for a moment,” Mistress Ford sobbed. “To London! They flew that way! Perhaps they went to meet their master there.”

“Perhaps they set down somewhere near here,” called out a voice.

“We’ll search the village,” said Pastor Middleton. “Everyone to the inn’s common room so we can decide who searches where and with whom.”

The men trooped into the inn. Robin watched, vaguely aware that somebody was missing from the group. But there was no time to figure out who. She waited a minute longer, then motioned to the others to get up.

“No running,” she cautioned. “We’ll concentrate on being quiet. Come on.”

Robin led them toward the center of the village, although behind the houses.

Dean paused. “We’re going the wrong way. We’re supposed to go to the coast. This way’s towards London.”

“I know,” Robin said. “We’ll make tracks that way, then double back along the stream. Hopefully, that will put them off our trail. Now, be quiet.”

They made good progress to the other end of the village, but as they left the last house behind for the road to London, they heard the pounding of a single man running. Robin pressed herself and Elizabeth into the shadow of a roadside tree. Carefully, she eased around to see who had run up.

“Damn,” the newcomer muttered.

It was Master Neddrick, and Robin realized he had been the man missing from the group that had come to arrest her and the others. Dean shifted and a twig snapped. Master Neddrick’s eyes fastened on the tree.

“You’re lucky I need Elizabeth,” he said, chuckling softly. “Otherwise, I would sound the alarm.”

“You’ll have to sound it, then,” said Robin, slightly amazed at how confident she sounded. “What makes you think we’d give Elizabeth up?”

“This.” He pulled something from his belt.

At that moment, the moon broke through the clouds and Robin rolled around the trunk of the tree. She made out the barrel of a pistol in Neddrick’s hands.

“You got another one of those?” she asked.

Neddrick’s breath caught, but then he chuckled. “You’ll just have to guess.”

There wasn’t time for guessing. Dean crashed out from his hiding place and tackled Neddrick from the side. The two rolled and Neddrick banged at Dean’s back with the pistol butt, but Dean had his arms almost pinned and Neddrick couldn’t hit very hard. Dean got one hand on Neddrick’s face, then he reared back and rabbit punched Neddrick in the side of the head. Neddrick was just stunned enough. Dean kneed him in the breadbasket, then rabbit punched him again to make sure he was knocked out.

Robin and Elizabeth were already running toward London. They had gone almost a quarter mile when Dean finally caught up. Robin looked back toward the village. Small flecks of light – torches – bounced up and down in the distance. They seemed massed at the edge of the village and certainly weren’t fanning out.

“Okay,” Robin gasped. “Let’s get off the road.”

“Yeah,” Dean gasped. “Elizabeth, you okay?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

“Did you get the pistol?” Robin asked Dean.

“What pistol?”

“Damn. Neddrick had a pistol. We could have used it.”

“I thought you didn’t like guns,” Dean said.

Robin shushed him in reply.

It was a long night. Robin led them across the stream, and they followed it back the way they had come to the inn’s side of the village. It was slow going because Robin did not want to make any noise. Nor did she let them stop until they were several miles away. Even then, she watched while Dean and Elizabeth slept, until the first flush of dawn touched the eastern sky. Then she finally nodded off.

Elizabeth had been so tired when they finally stopped that she hadn’t really noticed where they were. She awoke as the sun cleared the horizon and sleepily noted that the three had tucked themselves into the corner of someone’s pasture, up against the hedgerow. Standing on tiptoe, she could just barely see over the wall of ivy-covered stones. There was another narrow field and then the road. Not far away, and well into the pasture, a stream rippled past. Elizabeth couldn’t quite see it, but she heard it and guessed that it was beyond the small rise that shielded them from the rest of the pasture.

Dean awoke just in time to see Elizabeth walk softly off toward the stream. He yawned, then noted that Robin was still fast asleep. So he followed Elizabeth.

He found her next to the stream, weeping.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, plopping down next to her.

“What do you mean, ‘What’s wrong?’  Isn’t it obvious?” Elizabeth pursed her lips and tried to dry her eyes.

“Well, yeah.” Dean shrugged. “It was pretty scary getting run out of town like that, but we’re okay.”

“We spent last night in a field. And even if we find Mistress Ford’s cousin, there’s no guarantee he’ll be a decent, kind man. He could be horrible and cruel.”

Dean put his arm around Elizabeth’s shoulders. “Aw, we’ll be okay. If this cousin is a jerk, then we move on. It’s no big deal.”

“But we were accused of witchcraft!” Elizabeth wailed softly.

“So? We’re not witches.”

“But, Dean—”

Dean shook his head. “So what’s the big deal about it?”

“It’s witchcraft. Making pacts with the Devil.”

“But we’re not.” Dean shifted around and gently took Elizabeth’s chin. “Look, Elizabeth, it doesn’t matter what they say about us. Well, except that they wanted to hang us for it. Which I think is pretty stupid. I mean, back in my time, we don’t care about who you make deals with, and we’re not going to hang you because of some stupid superstition. Heck, we don’t hang people anymore, anyway.”

Elizabeth looked surprised. “You behead even the common criminals?”

“No! We only kill murderers, and usually by giving them a poison that just puts them to sleep.”

“What do you do with the witches, then?”

“What witches? There’s no such thing as witches, at least, not like the evil spell magic kind. There are some people who call themselves witches, but that’s just a pagan religion thing. Seriously, Elizabeth, people just don’t care about that.”

“This time, which is in the future.” Elizabeth began thinking carefully.

“Yeah.” Dean gave her a quick little squeeze. “So, you see, it’s no big deal.”

“It is here.”

“Well, yeah, but we dodged that rap. We’re okay.”

Elizabeth nodded. She liked the feeling of Dean’s arm around her shoulders and she leaned her head against him.

“I feel better,” she said softly.

“Cool.” Dean grinned, then suddenly shifted. “Yeah, well, we’d better not get too cuddly.”

“And why not?”

“Cause, well…” Dean grimaced and stood up. “I can’t talk about it.”

Elizabeth stood also, but was not to be put off. “You said you could talk to me about anything.”

Dean squirmed. “I know. It’s just about how guys are and all.”

“You mean what passes between man and wife,” Elizabeth smirked.

“Well, yeah. And what do you know about all that stuff? I thought you weren’t supposed to find out until the night before your wedding or something.”

“What?” Elizabeth couldn’t help laughing. “Where on this earth did you learn that? Of course, I know what happens in the conjugal bed. And I know about guys and all. I’ve had to fend off more than one, thank you.”

“Well, you won’t be fending me off.” Dean folded his arms and stood resolutely. “I mean, you are a virgin, aren’t you?”

Elizabeth gasped. “That’s a fine thing to ask me! I am a maid, indeed. That you should even ask!”

Dean caught her as she stomped off.

“Look, Elizabeth, in my time, it’s not unusual for a girl to have sex by your age. Sometimes, it’s more unusual when they wait. I mean, it’s no big deal. I don’t care. It’s just I figured if you knew the facts of life, then maybe you weren’t, which was dumb, I know, but…”

Elizabeth melted under the gaze of his puppy-dog eyes. “I just don’t understand, Dean. I mean, it’s noble that you don’t want to trespass upon my virtue, but to treat me as if I’m an infant in understanding, it’s uncomfortable.”

Dean sighed. “I guess I just don’t know how guys in your time…  You know, what they do when they like a girl, if they want to date or something.”

“Date?” Elizabeth frowned. “What is that?”

“Well, in my time, if a guy likes a girl, he asks her out to do stuff together, like eat dinner or go to a movie. Oh wait, you wouldn’t know what that is. It’s like going to a play. And if they get to like each other more and more, and fall in love, then they move in together and maybe get married and all that. And sometimes even the girl will ask the guy. And a lot of times, it doesn’t work out, so you go out with someone else until you find just the right person. Anyway, that’s how we do it and I was wondering how you do it.”

“We don’t.” Elizabeth looked out over the stream. “If I was still with my father, then he’d be finding me a husband. There were a couple boys that I had my eye on, and my father was a kind man and would have considered them. But he would choose the man and I must needs obey his wishes.”

“But what about falling in love?”

Elizabeth shook her head and chuckled. “What about it? That’s all very nice for fairy tales and other such nonsense, but a good wife learns to love the husband her father finds for her. Falling in love is rash and dangerous and not much good is likely to come of it.” She paused. “Although, the mistress I served before I left my village, she and her husband had fallen in love, and it was quite a happy union.”

“Well, I’m not thinking about getting married yet,” Dean said.

“I didn’t think so.” Elizabeth turned to him, her eyes warm and full in the early morning light. “Some young men do go and court their mistresses to try to win their hearts.”

“I’d like to try this courtship thing,” said Dean softly. “I don’t want to make any promises, Elizabeth. I can’t. I gotta go back to my time sooner or later, and we did come here to bring you back.” He looked away and swallowed. “I just don’t see how I’m going to want to leave you.”

Elizabeth nodded sadly. “You can’t stay here?”

“I don’t know. I could, I guess. But there’s lots of things about my time that knock socks off of this one. Like not dying just ‘cause you got your arm sliced open. We got drugs that stop that from happening. We got more food. You get to keep your teeth.”

“That would be nice.” Elizabeth softly touched Dean’s arm. “I could try again. In your world. I mean, your time. There’s much I don’t understand, but Robin has been telling me a little about it and it doesn’t seem so fearful when she explains it.”

Dean grinned. “Nah. It’s just confusing. I mean, when she goes on about her computer and stuff, it’s like she’s talking another language.” He laid his hand on Elizabeth’s cheek. “I still can’t make any promises. About us, I mean. Heck, you could decide you don’t want me.”

“I very much doubt that.”

Dean bent and they softly kissed.

“How about this,” he said when they finally parted. “We’ll hang out here in your time until we’re sure about each other, and in the meantime, we’ll keep this between ourselves. I don’t want to go flipping Robin out until we have to.”

Elizabeth looked back at the corner of the pasture where they’d slept. “Poor thing. She is very lonely.”

Nonetheless, she kissed Dean again, with considerably more heat this time. Dean pulled back, gasping.

“Wo-oh!”

Elizabeth looked down in shame. “I am too forward.”

“Yes and no.” Dean looked away and back at her. “How long do you want to stay a maid?”

She laughed in response. “Until I am your wife and not a minute sooner. Good heavens, Dean, if I should get with child and you were to leave, it would be my undoing and that of the child’s. I am amazed that the girls of your time don’t fear for it.”

“Well, they do sometimes. But we have ways of keeping pregnancy from happening.”

“You do?” Elizabeth mulled that one over, and Dean could see her mentally chalking up another point in favor of his time.

 

Chapter Six

It was late in the day in the middle of the week when one of the farm boys came running into the village with the news everyone had been waiting for – the new pastor was coming.

The villagers filled the town square within minutes, their faces turned expectantly toward the far edge of the village where the road led to London. Even the one guest at the inn had come along with Robin, Dean, Elizabeth and Mistress Ford to take in the festivities.

Mistress Blethen joined the group from the inn, regal and complaining, as usual.

“It’s good that Mistress St. John was able to go back to her family,” said Mistress Ford about the former pastor’s widow.

“But she left the house in such a state,” replied Mistress Blethen. “I’ve been cleaning it all week. I’d just got done yester evening, and thanks be for that. When I came this morning, I found the new pastor’s clerk rooting about.”

Mistress Ford looked shocked. “A clerk?”

“It’s extravagance, I say,” Mistress Blethen replied. “But who are we to judge? I’m surprised that he hasn’t come out to greet his reverence.”

“I’ll send Master Robin to fetch him,” said Mistress Ford.

“Yes, ma’am,” said Robin, who went straight to the pastor’s house.

She found the clerk sitting by the kitchen fire, bent over something.

“Sir?” Robin asked.

The man jumped. He was a little taller than Robin, but not by much. His hair was yellow and his teeth remarkably white. There was something else about his features, something Robin couldn’t quite put her finger on, as if his face could have been one of a thousand different faces, and his skin had a darkish cast to it.

“You’re the new pastor’s clerk?” Robin asked.

“Uh, yes.”

“Then you should come outside. The new pastor is just now coming down the road and should be here any minute.”

The man brushed off his hands. “Uh, yes. That probably would be a good idea. It’s going to be interesting.”

“How so?”

The man smiled and there was something indiscriminate about it. “I’m not sure he knows I’m here. He may not have gotten the letter, you see.”

Robin shrugged. “We’ll see, I guess. I’m Master Robin Parker.”

She held out her hand to the clerk, who took it with a very odd look on his face, indeed.

“Uh, Master Robert Neddrick.”

“Welcome to Downleigh. I guess we’d better get outside.”

Master Neddrick seemed somewhat anxious to hide what he was doing, so Robin left the kitchen first, but waited to be sure the clerk would follow.

The crowd had just begun its welcoming cheer as Robin and Master Neddrick came into the square. The hurrahs diminished slightly as the four men on horses came slowly up the road. Pastor James Middleton was the easiest to spot – he was the one severely dressed in black, a plump man with a haughty, sour look on his face. The three men riding with him, presumably as an escort to protect the minister out on roads filled with bandits, were wearing military dress, but without any of the King’s colors or emblems. Nor did they wear the badge of the city of London. And one carried the flag of the Parliament.

Robin, at first, did not get the distinction. But the rest of the village did, and from there, Robin was able to piece together what was wrong.

Pastor Middleton, for his part, acknowledged the crowd but with the kind of disdain that suggested he tolerated their behavior but did not condone it. He got off his horse, then turned to the villagers.

“Greetings, my fellow sinners,” he announced. “Today, I come before you humbly, as God’s servant, to be your guide and counselor. Let us pray.”

And he began a very long and very pious prayer, thanking God for seeing him safely to the village, and for the villagers, and for a great many things that had nothing to do with anything, as far as Robin could see. She was longing to see what would happen when he came face to face with Master Neddrick, but that young man waited in the doorway to the house until the pastor had greeted Master Greenfield and the other aldermen. As soon as the pastor made ready to go inside, Master Neddrick slipped to Master Middleton’s side and whispered in his ear. The pastor nodded, and the two went inside, followed by the horsemen, who brought in Master Middleton’s luggage.

And that was that. The villagers dispersed, almost in silence, but Robin could almost feel the buzz of comment from behind every house wall.

Like the rest of the village, Mistress Ford kept her comments to herself until they reached the inn and the guest went upstairs.

“Hmph!” Mistress Ford snorted. “I won’t say our last pastor was perfect, but this new fellow does not seem to be much of an improvement.”

Robin shook her heard. “I’d have never believed it, but I honestly think that whoever decides these things actually found the one choice that’s worse than what we had.”

“If I may, I agree,” said Elizabeth. “I’ve known his kind before. They are the sourest Christians that ever trod the earth.”

“Anybody want to put up some money we’ll be getting some hellfire and brimstone preaching this Sunday?” Robin asked.

“Or it will be wives, be subordinate to your husbands,” Mistress Ford sighed, with a glance toward the common room where Master Ford snored peacefully away. “Well, we’d best be ready for this evening. The men will want to talk over the new pastor, and I’d be very surprised if after Sunday, we’ll be having anyone in for the evening.”

That evening the inn was busy, with practically every man in the village there to talk over the new pastor. The consensus was that he was an improvement over the old Laudian, but how much depended on where one stood politically. The tension was almost suffocating, but the men were reluctant to leave. About the only thing they could agree on was that Pastor Middleton was not likely to approve of taking a pint or two at the local inn.

Later, up in their loft, Dean wondered aloud why everyone knew they were going to have to give up visiting the inn at night.

“I mean if everybody disagrees with the guy, why would they bother listening to him?”

Robin sighed. “Dean, have you ever noticed anybody to miss church around here?”

“No.”

“They disagreed with the other pastor, right?”

“Yeah.”

“But they still paid attention to his sermons and did what he said.”

“Well, I guess so, but…” His voice trailed off.

“Dean, religion and government are very closely linked here. The pastor is a very influential man because of his position.”

“And they think this new guy won’t like drinking.”

“Not exactly. Just social drinking, going to the local tavern for the evening. He’s probably like… Well, remember cousin Janet?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Remember when she got converted into that super conservative Christian group?”

“Boy, do I. They wouldn’t let her dance even.”

“That sounds like this guy.”

Dean’s eyes widened. “Oh, wow. Folks around here aren’t going to like being told they shouldn’t go visit the inn.”

“Do they like it back home? Face it, Dean, people haven’t changed all that much over the centuries. Like I said, we’re in for some hellfire and brimstone Sunday.”

Dean groaned as Robin rolled over to go to sleep.

As Robin predicted, the hellfire and brimstone overflowed from the pulpit. The entire service had undergone some radical changes. The altar was now the communion table and in the middle of the church instead of the front. Pastor Middleton wore no vestments. There was almost no ritual. If anything, the service consisted mostly of  Middleton’s incredibly long sermon.

It was not an easy sermon to listen to, nor could one sleep through it. Pastor Middleton, had a very full, loud and grating voice. And he was the only thing that could have been worse than the previous pastor.

He preached from Revelations, showing how the signs were right for the return of Christ. He reminded Robin a little of a preacher she had heard down near Costa Mesa. It seemed both were certain the big event was due within their lifetimes. At least Robin knew Pastor Middleton was wrong.

Still, the man unsettled her and the other parishioners. Part of it was the way Middleton condemned the King. According to him, Charles I was one of the twelve heads of the Beast, if not the Anti-Christ himself. The really unnerving thing about Middleton’s attitude was that he had a good case for it. Only Robin’s historical perspective kept her from squirming with the rest of the congregation, Dean included.

“You think maybe Pastor Middleton could be right about the king?” he asked in a concerned voice as they sat on the hill that afternoon.

“Dean, when we left the twenty-first century had Christ shown up yet?” Robin replied, irritated with the way her own fears were surfacing.

“No. I guess Middleton’s wrong.”

“My father never did hold with people who preached that the Judgment Day was upon us,” said Elizabeth. “He said men have been saying that since Christ first left, and all of them have said the predictions in Revelations were coming true. Perhaps some are. All I know is that one should be as a good a Christian as possible, then Judgment Day can come at any time it wants and it makes no difference.”

“I had a friend in high school who used to say that,” Robin replied. “Or something like that. It certainly makes more sense than scaring people into behaving.”

Dean just shrugged.

For the moment, it appeared that Pastor Middleton was not going to condemn the nightly gatherings at the inn, and so the men came out again the following evening.

But any friendliness was forced, at best. The men quickly broke down into cliques. Tension again made its presence felt. Dean prowled the walls. Robin filled the tankards with one eye on the patrons.

It started with an argument. Master Leaton and Master Dimsdale were certainly loud enough, but even though it concerned the conflict between the King and the Parliament, loud arguments were common and no cause for alarm. Then the two men jumped up and Leaton grabbed Dimsdale by the throat.

Dean happened to be on the other side of the room at the time. He hurried over, but not before Dimsdale’s friend came to his aid. Then Leaton’s friend joined in.

The whole thing snowballed in seconds. Everyone was fighting. Dean and Robin frantically tried to push the combatants into the street before they tore the inn down. Then Elizabeth screamed. Weapons remained outside or Mistress Ford guarded them in the kitchen. Still someone had brought in a hunting knife. The knife’s victim, Master Leaton, sagged to the ground clutching his arm as the crowd pulled back. The errant knife was on the floor and no one claimed it. Dean drew his sword.

“All right!” he bellowed. “I don’t care what side you’re on, get out before I use this!”

The common room emptied out within minutes. Elizabeth and Mistress Ford tended to the wounded man. It wasn’t a serious cut as cuts went. But Robin fretted. The conditions weren’t exactly sanitary, and no one knew that was even an issue. Worse yet, saying so could get her, Dean and Elizabeth into trouble.

“We’ll need bandages,” said Mistress Ford.

“I’ll prepare them,” Robin volunteered and hurried into the kitchen.

Elizabeth appeared a moment later.

“We need boiling water,” Robin told her.

“Don’t be silly,” said Elizabeth. “We just need some cloth strips to wrap it with. Boiling water will only scald the man.”

She picked up a cloth used for covering rising bread and returned to the common room. Robin shook her head, but there was nothing that could be done.

 

Across the road from the inn, Donald Long watched the exodus from the inn. He’d heard the yelling and had debated going in, but decided against it. It would be unseemly for the pastor’s clerk to be seen in such a sinful place, and Donald didn’t like being seen in the first place.

If only that Blethen bitch hadn’t caught him in the pastor’s house. He’d managed to stay hidden easily enough to help that other old fart to his eternal reward, and to recover the bottle before anyone had noticed it, even with half the village there to see. Still, he was in an excellent position with the most powerful man in the village.

Donald faded quickly into the blackness as the door to the inn opened. He watched as Mistress Ford, Dean Parker and the girl brought out an injured man. Donald sniffed. It was that hot-head Leaton, probably had gotten what he’d long deserved. On the other hand, Donald found himself musing, if there was some way he could blame the innkeeper’s servants, maybe that would force the trio onto the road where there was less cover and easier access to Elizabeth.

And even if he couldn’t get the village riled up over Leaton, there was his old favorite stand-by, the witchcraft charge. Not that it was easy getting people riled up about a young woman. Fortunately, Elizabeth was just a little too intelligent for her own good. It had been a stretch convincing her previous pastor that she had taught herself to read the Psalms by the power of the devil. Donald couldn’t help savoring that little triumph once again.

But now Elizabeth was a stranger, and there were the Parkers to deal with as well. He watched as Robin Parker came outside and emptied a bucket. As clever as that woman was, she never seemed to notice when he was watching her. He’d watched her arrive from the drop outside that B&B in Windsor. And she never saw him in London. But this time, she didn’t know who he was, let alone that he was watching her. Donald grimaced. Travelling backwards along her timetron’s path did make the continuity a little confusing.

Robin returned inside. She and her brother were fitting in among the villagers rather well. Master Robin had even caught the eye of the town’s prettiest maid.

Donald paused and smiled. Although others also considered Mistress Smith far too froward to be a worthy wife, “Master” Robin had far better reason to avoid marriage. But would simply exposing Robin for the woman she was get him Elizabeth? After all, more than one woman of the seventeenth century had taken refuge in the guise of a man. No, better to cast suspicion on all three, get Elizabeth long enough to get the job done, and save his ultimate revenge on Robin and Dean for the future.

 

The next day, Robin could almost smell the gloom as she walked through the village to the pastor’s house with one of Mistress Ford’s best cheeses for the clergyman.

Robin stopped first at Master Leaton’s house to inquire after him. Sure enough, he had taken sick from his wound. Robin could see that his fever was quite high. His arm was swollen and Robin didn’t want to think about what it looked like underneath the bandages. She wished the family well, and sighing heavily, left the cottage.

Master Neddrick opened the door at the pastor’s house and seemed strangely pleased to see Robin. He ushered her into the common room where the pastor was reading a pamphlet.

“Good morning, sir. Mistress Ford, from the inn…” Robin began.

“You are Master Robin Parker, are you not?” Pastor Middleton interrupted.

Robin shifted under the older man’s odd scrutiny.

“Yes, sir,” she said.

“Good sir, I’d like to talk to you.”

“Yes, sir?” Robin noticed that the pastor was gazing at her chin. She fought the urge to hide it.

“I’m told you are not interested in wooing Mistress Mary Smith.”

“No, sir. And I’m not the only one.”

“But you’re the only one without a beard.” Middleton’s eyebrow lifted.

Robin nodded. “I know, and I suspect you’re wondering about that. There was an accident when I was a babe, and I lost my, uh, testes.”

Middleton nodded and Robin hoped that he was not going to pants her.

“You are too big to be a woman,” Middleton noted, looking up at her. “But not fully a man. You have been cursed, you know. But should you repent of your evil, you might be able to find favor again with God.”

“Evil?”

“Serving ale to drunken fools. You are the tapster, are you not?”

“Yes, sir. But I don’t serve to drunks. We escort them out if they get too much.”

Middleton shook his head. “It is an evil practice, drinking ale at an alehouse at night.”

“We are an inn.” Robin fought to contain her temper. “Surely you stayed in one on your way here. The highways are full of bandits. We are a necessary service.”

“But to tempt your fellow villagers with the evils of too much ale in rude company, that is sinful.” Middleton prowled around Robin.

“Then we won’t anymore,” Robin said. “Mistress Ford was saying this morning that it would be better to not serve after supper. The inn has been a meeting place for the village, especially since we couldn’t use the church. But the men can meet elsewhere when needs be. Mistress Ford said that. She is a godly woman.”

“Who rules her husband?” snarled the pastor.

“He’s incapacitated. And she still takes good care of him.”

“He is the prime example of what happens to a man who succumbs to the evil of strong drink, no doubt driven to it by his wife.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Robin snapped.

Middleton stepped back. “Shall I have you flogged for insolence?”

“No, sir.” Robin stepped back. “In any case, Mistress Ford sent you one of her best cheeses, here.”

“Take it back. I’ll not take the offering of a sinner.”

Robin glared. “You don’t even know her. I assure you, if someone is sick in this village, or ready for childbirth, she is the first one there after Mistress Blethen. If there is anyone who wants for anything here, they go to her and do not go away empty handed. When beggars come, they stop at her door. They don’t waste time going elsewhere because they will be turned away. How does that make Mistress Ford a sinner?”

“I know who is a sinner and who isn’t,” Middleton snapped, pulling himself up to his full height.

Robin dropped the basket with the cheese at his feet. “Then it should be easy to find Mistress Ford’s tithe this Sunday and return it to her. And I assure you it will be in the collection basket. You can’t miss it. It’s the most generous one.”

Middleton glared at her. “I suppose it is commendable that you show such loyalty to your mistress. But take care, Master Parker, that you do not end up following her into the gates of Hell.”

Robin turned walked out of the house, not daring to say another word.

Back at the inn, she tried to avoid telling Mistress Ford what had happened, but Mistress Ford took one look at her and knew.

“So, what has gained me the pastor’s ire?” Mistress Ford asked philosophically. “That I serve ale to the men of the village or that I rule my husband?”

“Both,” grumbled Robin. “I’m sorry.”

Mistress Ford shrugged. “I’ve friends enough in the village, and I shan’t be serving after supper. It will take time, I suppose, but I’ll prove myself the godly woman I am.” She smiled at Elizabeth, Dean and Robin. “I just hope you three won’t look for a riper situation. I’m afraid I won’t be able to be as generous with the wages.”

“As long as I have food to eat and a roof over my head, I’m staying,” said Elizabeth.

“And you boys?” Mistress Ford asked.

Dean looked at Robin, as did Mistress Ford and Elizabeth. Robin nodded reluctantly.

That was another problem. She and Dean couldn’t promise to stay. They had to go home before they aged too much. It would be too awkward trying to explain completely the faded tans, wrinkles or gray hair that would be sure to occur if they waited around for Elizabeth to die of old age. Robin had no intention of remaining in the seventeenth century for the rest of her natural lifetime.

That afternoon, as the barley roasted for the ale, Robin stood just outside the kitchen in the yard, kicking at the small stones on the ground. Elizabeth appeared at her side.

“You are sad,” the younger girl observed. “Your errand to the pastor?”

“No kidding.” Robin grumbled. “I swear that son of a bitch is more conservative than Jerry Falwell.”

“And who is Jerry Falwell?”

“A pastor in my century that is very moralistic, just like Pastor Middleton.” Robin let out a soft rueful laugh. “It’s amazing how little people change. Yeah, I know there’s a lot that has changed, and we do look at some things differently, but the basic human personalities sure as hell haven’t changed one iota.”

Elizabeth frowned.

“Robin, in your land,” she asked slowly, “is there an England?”

“In the U.S., where Dean and I live, there’s a New England. That’s what we call what you call the Colonies.”

“Is it the same land as the Colonies?”

“Yes.” Robin looked puzzled.

“I’m trying to understand,” Elizabeth explained. “You keep talking about centuries and time, and it seems strange that you should identify a place by a name that also means time.”

Robin suddenly understood Elizabeth’s confusion.

“Where’s Dean?” Robin asked.

“Watching the barley.”

“Maybe we’d better wait and go keep an eye on him.”

Elizabeth laughed. “I wouldn’t worry. Dean likes his ale too much to let the barley burn.”

“You’re right,” Robin smiled. “Come on. Let’s go to the stable. We won’t be overheard there. We don’t want anyone thinking we’re witches.”

Elizabeth shuddered, but Robin didn’t notice.

In the stable, Robin sat down on a bundle of hay.

“Elizabeth,” she said slowly. “Do you remember in the castle where we found you how you said you’d been sleeping?”

“Yes, and while I did, Roger moved the chamber.”

“You also said you’d changed lands. But that wasn’t quite right. You were still in the same land. Have you heard the story of the Sleeping Beauty? She was put to sleep for a hundred years?”

“Yes, I know it.” Elizabeth nodded eagerly.

Robing took a deep breath. “That’s what happened to you, only it wasn’t magic, in the sense that it wasn’t a spell. It was science. You see, a hundred years from now, a man named Ben Franklin is going to find out that lightening can be collected, that it’s power can be transmitted, can be directed to a specific spot. A hundred years after that, a man named Thomas Edison will discover that this collected power, which is something called electricity, can be stored and used to make light, and to make wheels turn and a lot of other things. It’s part of what I call technology, and you call magic.”

“But how do you know these things will happen?”

“Because five hundred years from now, your Roger will find a way to make someone sleep for hundreds of years without dying or growing older. I know because that’s what happened to you. You were sleeping for over three hundred years, Elizabeth. Do you understand that?”

She frowned. “I believe so. But why am I back in England as it was when I left?”

“Because Roger found a way to travel not only across land, but across years and days. He found a way to travel backwards and forward in time. He is from my future, as I am from your future.”

“How long was I asleep?”

“Somewhere between three hundred and sixty, three hundred seventy years.”

Elizabeth did the math. “That’s impossible, and yet, it can’t be, for I know it happened. This is so hard to understand.”

“I know, Elizabeth.” Robin put her hand on Elizabeth’s shoulder. “Most of the knowledge that makes Dean’s iPhone possible hasn’t been discovered yet.”

“But how can one change time?”

Robin shrugged. “I don’t know. As I said, Roger is not from my time. He is from my future, which is even further ahead. In that time, they will know. It was an accident that Dean and I were able to find you and the time machine. All I know is how to work the thing.”

Elizabeth nodded. “It’s still not completely clear, but it’s better. Come. Dean will need help with the mash.” She stopped at the door to the stable. “And, Robin, please don’t be too angry with the pastor. He means well, even if all he does is cause trouble. We do have to live with him.”

“Yeah.” Robin smiled. “That’s the nice thing about you, Elizabeth. You’re at least willing to try something new.”

“It doesn’t seem like it,” she sighed.

“You did fine,” Robin said. “You’d have never made it as far as you did in the twenty-first century if you were as narrow as old Middleton. You should be proud of yourself.”

Elizabeth smiled. “You are so kind, Robin. I want so much to like your magic, or whatever you call it, because you do.”

“I understand. I’m so used to it, I don’t even think about it. I forget how frightening it must be to you.”

Elizabeth nodded. Together, the two women left the stable.

 

Essays, general essay

Looking for Beta Readers!

My latest novel, Death of the Zanjero, is ready for beta readers. Basically, it’s just test-reading the novel to see what needs fixing before it gets released next spring. Why so far in advance? It needs to be ready several months before the May release date to give reviewers time to read it and post their reviews.

The story is set in Los Angeles in 1870, a time when the small town was very violent and impossibly corrupt, with the most corrupt being the Zanjero or water overseer. When Zanjero Bert Rivers’ body floats up out of the irrigation ditch, or zanja, winemaker and healing woman Maddie Wilcox finds herself defending the person accused of killing him – the town’s most notorious madam. To save her, Maddie must find out who killed the despicable Bert Rivers, without revealing how she knows the madam is innocent. It’s a chase that will tax her intellect, her soul and her very belief in humanity before she’s done.

I’m really excited and proud of this novel and hope you’ll like it, too. If you want to read it, there is one small catch – you’ll have to read it in .pdf and send me notes on what you liked and didn’t like. There are limited spots available, so be the first to email me via the contact form to the right or below. I’m looking forward to hearing from you and your comments!

Chapter Five

The three young gentlemen soldiers were gone before the sun rose the next morning. Robin wasn’t sure how it happened, but by noon, the entire village knew of the attack on Elizabeth the night before. Perhaps not as surprising was the way the number of attackers grew as the tale was told.

And with each telling Robin’s and Dean’s stock in the village grew. The villagers weren’t ready to embrace the pair as their own. But they were more willing to accept them.

A little over a week after the attack, Robin accompanied Elizabeth to the church to deliver some cheese to the pastor. As they approached the square, where the village well was located, Robin heard the familiar hiss of children whispering behind her.

She whirled, hollering “Boo!”

Screaming, the children scattered, giggling as they pushed each other out of the way.

“You’ve gotten quite popular,” Elizabeth teased.

“And how many men did I fight off?” Robin sighed. “Isn’t the number up to twenty by now?”

Elizabeth laughed. The sound of another young woman’s laughter echoed.

It belonged to Mistress Mary Smith, the tinker’s daughter. Standing next to the well, the pleasantly plump young woman was just dropping the last of a bit of laundry into her basket.

“Good day, Master Parker, Mistress Wynford,” she said.

“Good day, Mistress Smith,” Elizabeth replied. “How fares Mistress Blethen?”Continue reading

Chapter Four

There was barely a flush in the eastern sky when Dean felt Robin prodding him awake the next morning. He grumbled, but it was quickly clear that his sister was in no mood to put up with his complaints. Not sure what was bugging her, he followed her out of the barn and on to their first task of the day, setting the rabbit traps along the nearby stream that flowed between the fields and a small glade of trees.

Robin kept muttering about the time, and sure enough, the King’s messenger and Master Black were already awake and waiting by the time Dean and Robin got back. But it didn’t take long to set up the table for their breakfast. In the meantime, Master Black took some bread and his horse and left quickly.

Robin and Dean joined Mistress Ford and Elizabeth in the kitchen to eat the porridge that Elizabeth had prepared. Then Dean was sent to bring out the King’s messenger’s horse, Elizabeth to tend to the now empty rooms, and Robin to take down the table in the common room. Mistress Ford went to milk the cow, which apparently refused to milk for anyone else.

Dean had the horse saddled and ready by the time the messenger had eaten but got no thanks as the man mounted and rode off. Mistress Ford had also told Dean to clean the stables once the messenger was gone, and so Dean turned to his task.

The mess that was the stable overwhelmed him as he stood in the doorway. His stomach grumbled with hunger and he grumbled about how miserable it all was. He was still grumbling when Elizabeth came out to the stable, looking for an extra broom.

“Doesn’t anybody, like, rest or something around here?” he said, tossing straws from the bench he was reclining on.

Elizabeth pursed her lips and avoided looking at him.

“And I’m really hungry here,” Dean continued, oblivious. “If you want to keep me working, you got to feed me. I mean, I need fuel.”

Finally, Elizabeth could bear no more.Continue reading

Essays, general essay

I’m a Font Freak

I love fonts – what we used to call typefaces back in the day when people actually set type. I love going through the bazillions out there, testing first this one, then that. Debating whether I want to go with serifs or without. And I do have some absolute faves.

Now, I am aware that it is not normal to have a favorite font. It’s not normal to have a favorite Shakespeare play, or a favorite character (Puck) from my favorite play (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). And if you really want to see someone’s eyes glaze over in record time, start getting excited about file folders. I’m a strict third cut tab person, by the way. Normal has never been my thing.

So I’m cool with loving fonts. The only thing that makes me sad is that I can’t usually use my favorite fonts on my business cards or as website headers because most people can’t read them. Kind of works at cross purposes, you know?

But you wait. One of these days, I’m going to find a way to use Diploma on something that isn’t a diploma. I will. I will. I will.

Chapter Three

It took almost two weeks to get all the information and clothes that Robin wanted before she felt satisfied that she and Dean were ready to make the jump into the past.

The clothes had been the hardest part. Robin made contact with a historical re-enactor through an e-mail friend of hers. The re-enactor helped her find outfits through her group but was remarkably picky about authenticity. Oddly enough, Elizabeth wasn’t, and in fact pronounced several doublets and breeches as workable that the re-enactor turned her nose up at.

Dean, for his part, complained incessantly and tried again and again to interest Elizabeth in modern life. Again and again, Elizabeth reacted in fear or distaste. She refused to flush a toilet, although she liked toilet paper once she got the hang of it. Dean’s favorite alternative rock and hip-hop groups made her shudder. She refused to wear any less than three layers of clothes and clung tenaciously to her stays. Daily showers were a struggle. Robin and Dean had to be very sure to keep her away from television sets because the “elves in the box” would start her screaming. And while getting her on the Underground was difficult enough, the only thing worse was driving the magic carriage.

Even eating was difficult. Elizabeth would not eat anything that came in a Styrofoam container because she hated the feel of the foam. That made ordering food in almost impossible. But getting her through the streets to restaurants was pretty much running the poor girl through a gantlet of terrors.

The worse part was that Robin insisted the three stay moving to make it harder for Roger to track them. Furthermore, Elizabeth begged not to be left alone in whatever hotel room they were in after the first day because the phone had rung and scared her.

Still, Dean persisted, but as the two weeks wore on, his protests became less strident.

Finally, Robin was satisfied. The night before the three were to leave, she had hers and Dean’s luggage shipped to her office. All they had that night was what they could carry in the two homespun bags they would bring with them into the past.

The next morning, Dean made one last pro forma protest as he tested his saber.

“Are you sure about this, Robin?” he asked, swishing the sword through the air as he lunged forward.

“Put that damn thing down before you hurt one of us.” Like her brother, Robin wore a shirt, breeches, doublet, boots, wide belt and plain, dark cavalier hat.

“I’m not going to hurt anybody,” Dean grumbled, sheathing his sword nonetheless.

Robin tried not to groan. “Look, Dean, the only reason we’re carrying weapons is that we’d get slaughtered without them. With any luck at all, we won’t have to use them. Better yet, let’s try not to.” She looked over at Elizabeth and back at Dean. “Are you two ready?”

“I am,” said Elizabeth, her eyes shining with joy.

“I s’pose,” Dean grumbled as he picked up his bag.

Robin put the room key on the bureau, then, taking a deep breath, picked up the time machine and her bag. “Okay. We should all be touching.”

She waited for Dean and Elizabeth put their hands on each of her shoulders, then focused her mind on the geographic coordinates and date in early spring 1642 that she wanted.Continue reading