How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

How to Roast a Turkey Redux.

This is a post redux from my series on how to cook Thanksgiving Dinner. Thanksgiving Day may be on Thursday, but you may want to start thawing your bird now. Really. And here’s how to roast when it’s thawed.

It’s all about The Bird. Roasting a turkey is pretty easy. You prep the birdie, slap it in the oven. It cooks to 165 degrees. You pull it out, let it rest for 20 minutes while you mash the potatoes, finish the gravy and the green beans. Then you slice it in the kitchen, so you can snatch some of the yummy crispy skin first, and serve.

The trick is roasting the turkey so that it’s done at a certain time, such as after all the guests have arrived but before Grandma gets tipsy. Because turkeys are so big, they take a lot of time to roast. Not to mention ovens get cranky and depending on how cold your bird is before you put it in, it may take more or less time to get cooked all the way through. And you want it cooked all the way through because undercooked poultry is icky and because it can transmit salmonella, which is no fun at all.

I shoot for a slower cooking time – it’s easier to adjust for the timing of your meal. And it’s a much bigger problem if your bird is done too soon. Holding it in the oven or reheating it can dry it out and that’s not tasty. If it does happen to you, don’t despair. That’s what gravy is for. Just go ahead and slice the bird up and put it in a roasting pan or oven-safe dish, and cover it tightly with foil. Turn the oven to warm and if you can find the room (and you should, since the bones will be mostly gone), slide a pan of water on the lowest rack in the oven or on the floor. This will keep things somewhat moist.

A lot of folks recommend brining, and I used to be one of them. Until I discovered just how freaking hard it is to find a bird that hasn’t already had salt and other flavors injected into it. If your local turkeys are unbrined and you do want to, there are plenty of recipes out there on the Internet. But it is an extra step, plus the hassle of finding room in the fridge. Unless you’re in a part of the country where it’s below 40 degrees at night, in which case, a cooler on the back porch, securely closed, will probably do just fine and keep things perfectly safe. And speaking again of safety, you really want to make sure you clean any surface the raw turkey has come into contact with, and that you wash your hands before touching anything else. It’s a bit of a pain, but better than making your guests sick.

One note – because the stores hadn’t gotten their turkeys when I did the photos, I’m doing the demonstration on a chicken. Fear not. It is exactly the same process. The only difference is the size. And the first step is to figure out when you need to get the sucker into the oven. You’re going to be roasting it at 300 degrees, so figure it’s going to take 15 minutes for each pound of bird you have. I have a 12-pounder, so that’s 12 times 15, which is 180 minutes, divided by 60, equals three hours. You have a 20-pounder, that’s 20 times 15, which is 300 minutes, divided by 60, and that’s five hours. You want dinner at three. Bird goes into the oven at 10 a.m.-ish. If you’re going to stuff your bird (which I do not recommend because it takes longer and it’s harder to tell if the stuffing got cooked all the way through), then figure 20 minutes per pound.

It’s okay if the bird goes in a little late. Because I haven’t shared with you the one trick that will pretty much guarantee (as much as anything can) that the birdie will come out when you want it to. You’re going to blast it with high heat at the end of the cooking cycle. I learned this from watching Alton Brown’s Good Eats show on making turkeys, and I forget why he likes it. But I think it makes the skin crispier to blast at the end and I know I get a lot better control over when the verdamnt bugger comes out. Getting close to dinner time and the thermometer in the bird hasn’t crept past 100 degrees? Start blasting. Things cooking a little too fast? Turn down the heat until closer to dinner time, then blast the bejeebers out of it right before you serve the soup.

Which brings me to another major point – you will need at least an instant read thermometer. If you rely on the little pop-up that some birds come with, you will get over-done, dried out bird. Also, you won’t be able to tell when to turn the heat up. I like a probe thermometer, because you stick it in, put the bird in the oven and it stays. The wire drags out of the oven to the read out, but you can see exactly where your bird is at any time. And you can use it for any roast, meatloaf or even bread that you put in the oven.

Now, turn your oven to 300 degrees and prep your roasting pan, which means finding something to keep the bird above the fat and other goodies that drip to the bottom. This allows air underneath the bird and it doesn’t get so greasy. Or so I’m told. If you don’t have a rack, a small plate turned upside down will do just fine.

How to cook a turkey

Using a small plate on the left, using a rack, to hold the bird up and away from the drippings.

 

Wash and dry the turkey both inside and out. This is one of those rare occasions when a paper towel really does the job better than anything else.

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Now, you want to season the skin. You can use oil, with salt and pepper and/or other seasonings, use only plenty of salt and pepper, or my fave: slather on some butter all over, then salt and pepper. It’s Thanksgiving and unless you have an exceptionally compelling reason to cut the calories back, it’s worth the indulgence. Do cut off the half stick of butter before you use it because you’ll just contaminate the whole stick and butter ain’t that cheap.  All you do is scoop up a chunk of butter, warm in in your hand for a moment, then rub it all over, starting with the breast side. That’s the really meaty side.

 

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Then flip the bird into the roasting pan, breast side down. What? Am I committing heresy here? Hell, yes. It’s like I said in one of my earlier posts, that image of everyone ooing and ahhing at the perfectly browned bird? It’s a terrible way to roast a bird. All the juices drip into the back, which you don’t eat. Roasting a bird breast down doesn’t give you the pretty presentation, but all those lovely juices drip into the breast and helps keep it moist and delicious. I know which I’d rather eat. And you’ll be slicing this sucker in the kitchen to further spare you the embarrassment of doing a bad slicing job. One other benefit of roasting the bird on its breast, you don’t have to tie it up (even if you do stuff, which I do not recommend), nor do you have to worry about putting foil on the wings so they don’t get over done. No, as you see in the photo below, the wings tuck in very nicely on their own, as do the legs.

Do remember, however, to butter the backside of the bird, and generously salt and pepper it.

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Insert your probe in the breast, away from any bone. Folks say put the probe near the thigh. I always hit a bone or the cavity and my bird ends up underdone, which is bad. If you plan to roast to 165 degrees, then everything gets done, but not overdone, and carryover heat (that final bit of cooking that gets done outside the oven while the bird is resting) takes care of the rest.

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Set your probe thermometer to 140 degrees, or plan to check the turkey about every hour it’s in the oven. Put it in a 300 degree oven, but don’t stress if your forgot to turn it on earlier. Just turn it on now. It’s not going to hurt anything. That bird is going to be cooking a while. In an ideal world, you’ll be cooking it until the internal temperature hits about 140 degrees (about the time the hors d’oeuvres are set out), then blasting it with high heat until the internal temp reaches around 165-167 degrees. As noted above, if it’s cooking too fast, turn the oven down and check again in another half hour or so. If it’s cooking too slowly, give it about 15 to 20 minutes, then start blasting. And by blasting, I mean turning up your oven to its highest heat, around 500 degrees. Do keep an eye on things. My oven takes freaking forever to get to 500 degrees, even when it’s been cooking at 300 degrees. You may want to turn your oven on before Thanksgiving and see how long it takes to get to 500 degrees. It should only take about half an hour for the blast phase, but again, you can’t cook by numbers. Watch the birdie.

Oh, look. It’s done. You’ve strong-armed the bugger out of the oven. Now, using a couple sets of tongs and/or some long forks, pull it from the pan and set it on a cutting board (we like to put our cutting board on a half-sheet pan to catch all the juices) and cover with foil to keep warm while it rests. Now, we like our wooden cutting boards. We clean them with extremely hot water and a little bleach after every use and rinse them again. There are those who say that’s still not enough – and if you have someone among your guests with a compromised immune system, it may not be. You can also use a plastic cutting mat. One other note, you may want to cook some broth in that messy roasting pan, scraping all the bits off the bottom and sides, then pour everything into a jar, which you’ll put in your fridge once it’s cooled. It may be too salty for the gravy, but just salty enough to perk some up or for extra gravy later. Or you may have to toss it. But your roasting pan will be a lot easier to clean.

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Now, to the cutting (and let’s thank my Beloved Spouse for demonstrating this part). First, your remove the legs, separate the drumsticks from the thighs, and set them on your serving plattter, cut the meat off the thighs. Remove the wings next.

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Cut the bird vertically along the breastbone, then cut the slices of breast meat from the front to the back. Repeat on the other side.

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Seriously. That’s it. Serve the turkey forth, sit down and drink a big glass of wine. You’ve earned it at this point.

Catch the whole series on how to cook Thanksgiving Dinner here. Scroll down for all the links.

A Ring for a Second Chance is Now Available!

I know. You were expecting the next installment of But World Enough and Time. But I can’t help it. Today is the release day for my latest novel, A Ring for a Second Chance.

In this sequel to a beloved fairy tale, an all-too-convenient accident supposedly kills a young king and his family. Steffan and Ella and their children are, however, very much alive, but forced into hiding lest Steffan’s cousin, Queen Lanicia, wipes them out. Claiming to be a merchant fallen from the new queen’s favor, Steffan takes up farming in a small village. He and Ella raise their growing, and expanding, family, keeping their secret while forming friendships and building the support Steffan will need to regain his throne. Fortunately, there is just a bit of magic helping them along. But will it be enough?

I’ve been living with Steffan and Ella since I was 15 when they starred in my first novel. That may never see the light of day – let’s be real, it wasn’t very good. So I’m really excited that this sequel is finally out. I hope you enjoy it. You can check out all the places to buy it here.

Chapter Twelve

            As Robin came into the market place, she was directed to stand with the other young men already there.  Almost all of them were her young friends from the village.  As usual, Samuel took charge.

The only exception was Edward Skippington.  He stood apart from the others and listened to some final instructions from his father.  His brother, John, joined the group after speaking with Master Blount.

It did not escape Robin’s eye that Master Blount had chosen his most outspoken opponents in the village.  She could see that it hadn’t escaped the townspeople’s notice, either.  They stood about the square, staring sullenly at the little group of recruits.

At least Master Blount did not accompany them when they finally left.  They were led by a middle-aged man named Master Strike.  His enthusiasm was wanting.  He marched them to a camp surrounded by forest, eight miles out of town.

Four groups of other young men, each from a different village, made up the camp.  Each group kept to itself, Robin noticed with relief.  She hoped it would stay that way.  If worse came to worse, and the boys from Charing Vale caught on to her, she figured she might have half a chance of explaining her situation.  As it was, she tried to remain a little aloof from her comrades.

They bedded down, each village group huddling close to its own fire.  Some older men came around and distributed bread and cheese.  Robin, disgusted with Samuel’s efforts, took over building the fire.  As she looked around, she smugly noted theirs burnt brighter than any of the others.

Later, after she slipped away to make a private pit stop, the quiet chill of the night and the brightness of the stars called her, and she paused, drinking in the peace.  Then the sound of someone retching nearby startled her.

Going against her better judgment, Robin stepped through the brush.  The sick person was young Edward.  Concern took over and Robin went to him.

“Here, let me help,” she said, announcing herself.

Edward was too sick to notice.  Robin slid one hand under Edward’s belly and held his forehead with the other.  It didn’t last long.

“Thanks,” Edward gasped.

“You need some water,” Robin returned and grabbed for the horn at Edward’s belt.

He drew back.  “That’s a powder horn.”

“Oh.  Sorry.”  Robin noticed the two pistols stuck in Edward’s belt for the first time.

Edward suddenly giggled.  “It figures.  How come when you make water, you don’t bank it up against a tree like the other boys?”

Robin gaped.  “What?”

“You pee like a woman, Mistress Robin.”

“I take exception to that.”  Robin got a fistfull of Edward’s shirt.

“Oh, who cares.”  Edward walked out of Robin’s grasp.  “I’m certainly the last person to tell anyone.”

“But…”

Edward pushed through the small grove.  “Come on.  We’ve got to get back to camp.  They’ll think we’ve deserted if we don’t get back soon, and that would be unpleasant.”

Robin sighed, and followed.  Edward knowing her secret made her nervous, and even more irritated at being found out so quickly.  Robin debated ways to talk her way around it.  But ultimately, there was nothing to be done, except hope Edward would not take advantage of the situation for his own profit or pleasure.

The others were still awake when they arrived.  They sat around the fire talking softly.

“Are you sure it’s the same time every night?” Samuel asked John.

“Close enough,” John replied.  “As if it made any difference.”

“That’s all I need.”  Samuel was not happy.  “Does your father know?”

“Of course.  He and yours were already drawing up the contract.”

“It looks like you’re for it, Sam,” chuckled Robert.

“A hell of a lot sooner than I wanted,” sighed Samuel. “But this makes for a more immediate problem, you guys know.”  The boys all looked at Edward.  “You were sick back there, weren’t you?”

Edward shrugged.

“It was probably just food poisoning,” volunteered Robin.  “He seems alright now.”

There was a collective sigh from the group.

“I always am,” said Edward simply.  “At least so far.”

“You mean this has happened before?” asked Robin.

“Well, just for the past two weeks,” Edward replied.  “I don’t know why I always throw up dinner.  Mother said she was always sick in the mornings.  But then, she says it’s different with everyone.”

“What’s wrong with you?” Robin asked.

“Nothing’s wrong.”  Edward laughed.  “I’m with child.”

Robin laughed also.  “That’s one hell of a draft dodge.”

She stopped laughing as the others looked at her.  She looked at Edward closely.  The features that had only seemed effeminate were suddenly very much so.

“Perhaps we’ve said too much,” said John quietly.

“Why shouldn’t he know?” demanded Samuel.  “He’s one of us.”

“Besides,” Edward giggled.  “I was right about him, or should I say her?  I caught him red-handed.”

Samuel burst into laughter as he and the others began to see the truth also.  Robin poised herself for action and glared at Edward.

“I thought you said you weren’t going to tell anyone,” Robin snarled.

“What are you afraid of?” Samuel asked her.  “We’re not going to give you away.  Don’t you trust your own townsmen?”

“I, I don’t know that I should,” Robin replied.

“Well, if we’re not going to give Edward away,” Samuel said.  “We certainly won’t give you away.  It’s damned inconvenient is all, another female to protect.”

“I can take care of myself,” Robin replied indignantly.

“Edward’s the same way,” sighed Charles.

“So what is your reason?” Samuel asked.  “Edward, here, is hiding from Master Blount.”

“My brother and I were driven off my father’s land,” Robin explained.  “A greedy baron took over, killing our father and our cousin’s as well.  Since I’m so tall, we thought it would be safer if there were only one woman in the party.  After that, things just fell out the way they did.”

“They’ve fallen out rather poorly for you at the moment,” sighed Samuel.  “And for Edward.  So far we’ve been able to stay together and keep the others from finding out.  But what if they put us into separate companies?  You’ll never be able to get away with it among strangers.”

“There’s always the possibility of desertion,” Robin suggested.

“But which one of you men can we spare?” Samuel pondered.

“For what?” asked Robin.  “To escort us home?  I hardly think it’s necessary.  May I remind you who runs the inn?  It’s not my brother.”

“Robin is known for being exceptionally quick-witted,” Robert put in.

“Perhaps she could share one of the pistols,” John suggested.  “I don’t mind teaching them both.”

“It would be a good idea, in any case,” agreed Samuel.  “But we’ve got to figure out a way to get them out of here.”

“Why don’t we wait a few days?” Robin said.  “We’re a little close to home at the moment.  Besides, won’t they know to look for us there?”

“Edward will return as a woman,” Samuel replied.  “That’s all arranged anyway.  I suppose you could do the same.”

“I suppose,” Robin sighed.

“I know,” grumbled Edward.  “Who wants to go back to being a woman?  You don’t get to do anything.”

“You won’t have any choice in a couple months,” retorted Samuel.  “I think it’s about time anyway.  I’m tired of making it with someone dressed like me.”

“Not tired enough,” sniggered Richard.

Samuel glared at him while Robin smiled to herself.

As Robin bedded down, she thought about the new alternative presented to her.  Returning as a woman would leave open the option for remaining in Charing Vale.  It sounded attractive, at least remaining in the village did.  Robin shared Edward’s chagrin at returning to the feminine state.  Women at that time had no rights and were little more than chattel.

Then there was the problem of Elizabeth.  Robin had a feeling she knew why Dean was so anxious for all three of them to return home.  Even though she tried, Robin couldn’t close her eyes to the obvious attraction between the two.  She only hoped Dean was using his head and behaving responsibly.

It was still a complication Robin hadn’t bargained on.  Elizabeth was definitely terrified of returning to the twentieth century.  Dean was equally determined to do so.  Of the two, Dean stood a much better chance of surviving the seventeenth century than Elizabeth did of surviving the twentieth.  But if he stayed, how would Robin explain his disappearance to their parents?  At least Elizabeth didn’t have that factor to confront.  On the other hand, how were Dean and Robin going to explain Elizabeth’s sudden existence?

The possibility of breaking the two up flashed across Robin’s mind.  She dismissed the notion.  Somehow, Robin just couldn’t do it.  Her own failures made her

just that much more determined to make sure no one else’s attempts fell apart.

But how to explain Elizabeth?  Getting her identification wouldn’t be all that hard – Robin even knew someone who could get Elizabeth a legitimate Social Security Card under the table.  But Robin could see other problems, mostly with her mother.

Elizabeth’s virtuous obedience would appear as a very tempting inferiority complex to Mom.  Then there might be problems if Elizabeth said something just a little bit wrong and Mom questioned the girl’s ability to distinguish fantasy from reality.  Mom was big on objective reality.

It was unfortunate, Robin thought, that her mother only accepted the possible as a necessary evil.  One had to have imagination, she conceded, otherwise one could never have new ideas or inventions.  But one could get too wrapped up in dreams and that sort of thing bordered on instability.

As Robin drifted closer to sleep, she found herself wondering if that had been the problem between her parents all along.  Her father had always been anything but practical.  Reality for him included all the possibilities his fertile mind could create.  Admittedly, his only interest in fantasy was where speculation went on from knowledge.  Robin had always felt closer to her father than to her mother.  Perhaps it was because they had that sort of thinking in common.

No nearer to solving her problem, Robin drifted off to sleep.

The next morning they were awakened early.  Roll call was taken first thing.  Two boys from one of the neighboring villages were missing.  A message was sent to Master Blount to have them apprehended and flogged.  After a small breakfast of hard bread, the new recruits were on their way.  They walked steadily until noon, when they were given a two hour break and permission to hunt game.

Robin heard several gun reports as they ate.

“We’d best hurry,” grumbled John.  “The others will get all the game, and we won’t have meat tonight.”

“You’re going to teach us to shoot now?” Edward asked.

John sighed.  “I suppose so.  Edward, give Robin one of your pistols and a powder horn and shot bag.”  Edward did so.  “Now, these are German guns.  They were my grandfather’s.  How he got them, we’ll never know.  Now, Robin, note the spanner is attached to the powder horn.  Never undo it, or you can’t wind the gun and it won’t work unless it’s wound.  The first thing you two have to look over is the lock.  This here is the wheel.  The spanner goes through this hole here to wind it.  You can feel it catch.  Don’t do it now!  Never wind the wheel until the gun is loaded.  You can blow your head off that way.  Alright, make sure the doghead is laying flat at all times until you’re ready to shoot.  Now, this is the flashpan cover, you push that back with your thumb like so, and press this button to release it.  Back to the doghead.  This piece here in the clamp is called pyrites.  Edward, give Robin half of yours.  You must make sure there aren’t any cracks in the pyrites, or that it isn’t sticking out too far in the clamp.  It should look just like that.”  John demonstrated on Robin’s pistol.  “Alright, you two tell me what parts are what.”

After John was satisfied that the two women knew the parts of the pistols, he went on to explain the process of loading, tamping, winding and shooting.  The shooting itself involved a great deal of stalking to find the game, for even if one was lucky enough to get the gun to shoot, its accuracy could not be counted on for targets over twenty yards away.  Worse still, the guns were very old and finicky, in spite of the good care they’d received.

John first had the women shoot at targets on trees.  Robin stood with her feet squarely planted, her arms outstretched, both hands on the pistol, ready to absorb the kick.  Edward tried to imitate the casual attitude of her father and brother, and got knocked on her seat.  John helped her up.

“See how Robin stands?” he told her.  “And use a little less powder this time.”

They didn’t have time to try for any game that day.  The others anticipated that and had provided.  There were two rabbits and a quail.  These were presented to Robin and Edward that evening for them to clean.

“I’ll get the water and build the fire,” Robin volunteered, hoping Edward would have the animals cleaned before she finished.

As Robin stalled about her tasks, she watched Edward at hers.  Robin knew her lack of knowledge of womanly duties could get her into almost as much trouble as letting the whole camp know she was a woman.  Edward proved adept at feathering the quail.  Robin still had to clean one of the rabbits.  She was awkward at best.

“It’s been a long time,” she explained to Edward.

Edward just shrugged and showed Robin how it was done.

The next day at the lunch break, John took Edward and Robin stalking.  The pistols were loaded and ready, and had been since the day before.  John had insisted that the women carry the pistols loaded, just in case.

The first few attempts failed.  Either the fowl were too far away, or they scattered and broke for the air at the wrong moment, or (and Robin had to admit this was the most likely) the two women had lousy aim.

Then Edward caught the tail feathers of a grouse.  Robin stalked up on another, aimed the pistol and pulled the trigger.  Instead of the familiar quick whir, nothing happened.  The grouse took flight.  Robin turned the gun to look at it.  The pistol went off.  Robin yelped as the bird tumbled to the ground.  John laughed.  Robin looked at the dead bird.

“I’ll be damned,” she muttered.  “I wonder what the odds were of that happening?”

“Who knows?” said John.  He came over with the bird.  “I shouldn’t like to bet on it.  But I think I know what caused it.”  He took the pistol and looked over the wheel.  “It’s fouled, alright.  You’ve got to clean the wheel part out every so often.  The pyrites crumble into it and jam it.  Edward, here!  You need to see this too.”

That night Robin got her first lesson in cleaning fowl, and a lot of teasing from the boys on her first catch.

“And how many of you know how to shoot pistols?” Edward retorted.

“Let them tease,” Robin said.  “They’d just better remember that my brother isn’t the only one capable of throwing drunks out of inns, and that he had help the night Blount’s men came to visit.”

The boys roared with laughter.  But Robin noted with no small amusement that they slowed their teasing down.

“It’s strange,” Samuel confessed as they sat around the fire that night.  “That I should find such good friends in two women.  Then again, both of you have the hearts and minds of men.  I never thought I’d like that in a woman.”

Robin smiled.  “Most men don’t.  I think it takes an exceptionally perceptive man to realize that a woman is more interesting that way.”

The others shrugged.  The more Robin thought about it, the more she realized just how much women had achieved in her century, and how amazing it was that they had achieved it in so short a time.  That men’s attitudes had changed as much as they had was no small thing.  That attitudes still had a long way to go didn’t seem to mean as much.  It would take patience.  There were centuries to overcome, and Robin suddenly felt just how many.

They joined the rest of the Earl’s army late Friday afternoon.  In the much larger group, the smaller village groups hung together that much closer.  Little was done that afternoon beyond setting up a more permanent camp.

The next day the training started.  After roll call, each village group was called away by one of three officers to see what each individual could do.  The unoccupied groups stood around, waiting, hunting and starting small skirmishes amongst themselves to relieve the boredom and the tension.

The evaluations took the better part of the day.

“There’s a rumor they’re going to split us into different companies Monday,” Samuel said that evening as they sat around the fire.

“That’s not surprising,” Robin returned.  “I’ll bet I can tell who’s going to get put where.”

“What do you mean?” asked Charles.

“It’s simple,” said Robin.  “First, they wrote down what weapons each of us had, then they watched us drill with them.  Edward and I will probably go to a musket company, Samuel will end up in a cavalry unit, since he knows horses, the rest of you will go to the pike units.  They’re going to keep us as split up as possible to avoid conflicting loyalties.”

“I don’t want to go to a pike company,” grumbled Robert.

“A musket company is more dangerous,” said Robin.  “We only get one shot at a time, and loading those guns takes forever.  Samuel’s probably in the best position of any of us.”

“The cavalry’s no guarantee he won’t get hurt,” said Edward.

“True, but Samuel’s going to be support, probably a stable boy, or something like that,” replied Robin.  “Because he hasn’t got a horse, he won’t end up on the lines.”

“The problem is,” said Samuel.  “Is if we are split up, how are we going to keep Edward and Robin out of trouble?”

“Fear not,” said Robin.  “I’ve got everything under control.”

“Are you sure?” asked Samuel.

Robin glared at him.  “I am essentially the same person I was a week ago.  You would have taken my word for it then, why can’t you now?”

“Because, well…”  Samuel sighed.  Even with his archaic attitude, he had to admit Robin had a very good point.  But trusting women just wasn’t in his cultural mode of thinking.

Robin shook her head.  The next day there was roll call, then church service.  At the end of the service, Robin slipped up next to Edward and pushed her along.  The others were following them back to camp at a more leisurely pace.

“What?” asked Edward, bewildered.

“We’re leaving.” said Robin.

“Where?”

“Here.  We’re going home.”

“On the Sabbath?”

“It’s our best chance.  No one will know we’re gone until tomorrow morning.  We’ll have a half day’s lead on them, at least.  If we wait any longer, we’ll get put into other companies, and I don’t think I need to tell you the risks of that.  Let’s hurry.  I want to be gone before the others get back.”

“But we have to say goodbye.”

“We can’t.  If they don’t know we’re leaving, then they can honestly say they didn’t know we were going to.”

Edward sighed, but followed Robin’s lead.  They already had their cloaks, gloves and pistols with them, so there was no need to stop at the camp.  They walked quickly, but quietly through the brush and then into the open farmland.  Robin made a point of following the road but staying off it.  Grumbling, Edward followed.

That evening they stumbled on a camp of itinerant farm workers.  The workers invited the two travelers to share their meager soup, which Robin and Edward accepted with thanks.  They bedded down with the group.  Robin got up before dawn and woke Edward.

“Come on,” Robin whispered.  “We’re leaving.”

“Why now?”  Edward yawned.

“I want to get some distance between us and them before the army finds out we’ve been here.  Besides, they might have figured out we’re deserters, and that means we’re a source of income for them.  They won’t let us get away that easily if that’s the case.”

Edward shrugged and hurried after.

The day was cold and overcast.  Late that afternoon, it started to rain.  Robin left the cover of the forest for the road as they approached a small town.

“We’ll stay at the inn tonight,” Robin told Edward.

“Isn’t that dangerous?”

“Perhaps.  But would two fugitives risk it?  I think not.  Besides, we wouldn’t have the money to.”

Edward’s eyes grew wide.  “You mean we do?”

“I won’t say how much, but I generally have more means than it appears.  If you look poor, people are less likely to attack you.”

Edward nodded.  She was nervous, but imitated Robin’s confident manner.  At the inn, Robin paid for a single room for the two of them and a modest meal.  Shortly after they ate, Edward retired to the inn yard to have her evening sick session.  Robin waited for her in the best room, then decided the two would go to their room right away.

“No sense in pressing our luck,” she told Edward as she shut the door.

“It would have been fun,” sighed Edward.  “That’ll be the worst part of going back to being a woman.  No more nights at the inn.  At least you’ll be able to tap still.”

Robin shrugged.  “I don’t know what’s going to happen when we get back.”

“You don’t want to go back to being a woman, either.”

“Of course not.  The very idea of relying on my brother for his protection fills me with revulsion.”

Edward grinned.  “Perhaps it was a good thing you had to disguise yourself.  You’re too smart to be a woman.”

“Sh!”  Robin stared at a part of the wall near the floor.  “Damn!” she hissed.  “There’s a hole there.  I wonder who’s on the other side.”

“You think he could have heard us?”  Edward was frightened.

“He could have.  We’d better not say any more about it, or anything else we don’t want people to know.  We’ll keep watch tonight.”

Edward nodded.  “I’ll take the first look out.”

“Thanks.  I’ll turn in now.  Goodnight.”

They left early again the next day.  It was a long morning and still wet from the day before.  Both Robin and Edward stumbled several times through the slippery ruts in the road.

Close to noon, Robin decided they should do a little hunting to get their lunch.

“And how will we cook it?” Edward asked.  “The wood is too wet to build a fire.”

“I can get a fire going anytime I want,” Robin replied, smugly.

“Excuse me.” said a strange voice.

Robin and Edward stared into a toothless grin surrounded by a graying two day old beard.  It was all connected to a bent over man, with stringy shoulder length hair and filthy disarranged clothes.

“Can I help you?” asked Robin cautiously.

“Perhaps I can help you,” replied the man.  “You wanted some meat?”

“Well, lunch,” said Robin.

“Very good,” he said.  “It seems we are well met.  Would you care to share my lunch with me?  Save yourself the trouble of building a fire.”

“It’s not necessary,” Robin shifted.

There was something about the man that tripped all of her internal alarms.  But because she couldn’t put her finger on anything specific, she decided against snubbing his offer.  No sense in pissing him off, especially when he might run into soldiers looking for deserters in the near future.

“It’s my pleasure.”  The man bowed prettily.  “Come be my guests.  I am called Henry.  I am a lonely peddler.  I don’t often get companionship as I travel.”

He gave them plenty of cheese and bread for lunch, and even some fair porter.  Robin was amazed he carried the small cask, as well as all his wares, on his back.

“You like my wares?” Henry asked, as he packed up after the meal.  “I’ve some beautiful silk.”

He showed them a part of the bright red cloth.  Fabrics had never interested Robin in the least.  Edward had been playing boy for so long, she didn’t have much interest, either, and resented anything that smacked of the life she was returning to.  Robin did wonder a little about how a poor peddler got his hands on such an obviously rich fabric.

Nonetheless, she accepted the peddler’s invitation to travel with him.  They made good time, but by the time darkness approached, they were still miles from any village.

They bedded down on the edge of the road under the hedge of a nearby field.  Robin slept fitfully that night.  She guessed it was close to one a.m. when she heard a strangled squeak from Edward’s direction.  She turned.

Henry had gagged Edward and was binding her hands.  He looked at Robin and laughed.

“I wouldn’t try anything.” Henry said.  He whipped out a knife and placed it against Edward’s throat.

Robin stood slowly.  “What do you want?”

“Anything I can get.”  One-handed, Henry finished tying Edward and tied the other end of the rope to a tree.  “I do want you to step over here.”

Robin did as he commanded.  In an instant, Henry had the knife at her throat instead of Edward’s.  Robin stiffened as he grabbed her crotch and explored.

“I thought I heard you two right,” he said, grinning.  “You were overheard in the inn, you know.  I wasn’t quite sure I’d heard correctly when I first saw you.  You are rather large for a woman.”  His free hand reached inside her shirt.  “I am a very lonely man.”

“Why didn’t you just ask?” Robin returned.

Henry seemed startled, but didn’t remove the knife.

“I mean it,” Robin continued.  “It’s been very lonely for me too, for obvious reasons.”  Her hands crept up along his chest.  “I could be very good to you, if you’ll put down the knife.”

Henry chuckled.  “I’m not going to fall for that.”

Robin licked her lips with the edge of her tongue.  “Are you sure?”

The knife edged away.  Robin’s hand shot up and the knuckles of her two forefingers landed in his eyes.  Henry cringed.  Robin socked him in the stomach.  Grabbing her pistol, she brought it down butt first into the back of his neck.  The gun went off.  Startled, Robin nearly dropped it as Henry fell unconscious at her feet.

A few seconds later, Edward’s anxious gruntings brought Robin back to earth.  She hurried over and removed Edward’s gag, then set to work on the ropes.

“Where did you learn to fight like that?” Edward asked the moment her mouth was free.

“My father.  Didn’t yours teach you how to defend yourself?”

“Of course, but not like that.”

“So my father knew a few more dirty tricks than yours.”  Robin shrugged.

The rope fell from Edward’s wrists.

“Now what?” she asked.

“We get old Henry tied up.”  Robin picked up the rope.  “We’d better get it done fast.  We don’t want him waking up on us.”

In a matter of minutes, the grungy peddler was hog-tied.  Robin turned him over.  There was a clinking sound, and near the man’s waist, metal gleamed in the dying firelight.

“Gold.” gasped Robin.

Edward looked also.  “Angels.  Why would he be carrying those?”

Robin picked up the purse that had fallen, taking care to scoop the coins into it first.  After quickly checking to see that her own purse was still intact, she then dumped the little sack’s contents into her hands.

“All gold angels, alright.” she said.  “I get the feeling Master Henry is not only a peddler.”

“I thought it strange that he would be carrying silk,” Edward said.

“So did I.  We should have been more careful.  But seeing as though we’re none the worse for it…”

Edward’s eyes glowed.  “And we’re richer, too.”

“True.  Let’s see what else this guy’s got on him.”

They rifled Henry’s pockets.  All Robin found was a piece of folded parchment with a wax seal on it.

“What’s this?” she muttered, taking it over to the fire to read.

She stirred the coals, then fumbled over the strange writing.  In spite of the language decoder that enabled her to hear the language as her own, yet speak it as the people did, writing continued to look just as confusing as seventeenth century writing always had.  Edward peered over her shoulder.

“Can you read?” Robin asked.

“Yes, father taught me.”

“What does it say?”  Robin handed the paper to her.

Edward paused, reading the paper over, then took a deep breath.

“It says, ‘The bearer of this writ is in the favor of His Lordship, the Earl of Essex, for the return of deserters to His Lordship’s army, and is given the privilege to travel throughout His Lordship’s domain without hindrance by the Army.”

“Hot damn!” Robin grinned.  “That’s a free ticket to safety.”

“What do you mean?”

“If we carry that thing, as long as no one recognizes us as deserters, the army can’t accuse us of being deserters.  They can’t bother us, by His Lordship’s orders.”

Edward gaped.  “But it wasn’t written for us.”

“You think it was written for him?”  Robin jerked her head at the still comatose peddler.  “It probably belonged to some special friend of the Earl’s who kept getting stopped and harassed by the army.  You know what everybody on the road is saying.  Half of the army is deserting and the other half is looking for them.”

“It’s not that bad.”

“No.  But you know what I mean.”

“Yes.”  Edward thought it over.  “Are you sure we’ll be safe?”

Robin shrugged.  “We should be.  Just as long as we play it cool, and the people who catch us don’t know us.  I suggest we still try to avoid getting caught.”  Robin yawned.  “I also suggest we get some sleep.”

“I’ll watch first.”

“Okay.  Wake me in a couple hours.”

Robin got to test her theory earlier than she expected. The next morning, the two had been on the road an hour, when five men on horseback overtook them.  They reined in, surrounding the two women.

“Behold,” laughed the captain.  “Two young men out wandering by themselves.  Perhaps they are trying to escape service in His Lordship’s army.”

“Hardly, sir.”  Robin stood up straighter and with more confidence than she felt.  She removed the parchment from her doublet.  “If anything, we’ve seen to it that others have done their duty.”

She held the parchment up for the men to see.  At the captain’s signal, one of the others dismounted and looked at the paper.

“It’s the Earl’s seal, alright.” he said remounting.  “They are not to be bothered.”

“Pray forgive us then, sirs.”  The captain bowed his head, then signaled his men.

They rode off in the direction they had come.  Robin took a deep breath and smiled.

“Okay, heart, you can start beating again,” she muttered.

“You were right!” gasped Edward.

“Well, we’d better start being extra careful again.  We’re getting close to the vale, and that increases our chances of running into someone who knows us.”

“Such as one Master Blount.”

Robin nodded.  “Or one of his friendly henchmen.  Come on, let’s hurry.”

Essays, general essay

Feedback Frenzy

I’m not sure what it was that set me off. I seem to remember I was on some site I do business with and spent about two seconds checking a billing date or balance. But as soon I as tried to sign out, there it was. The ubiquitous pop up demanding feedback.

I clicked it off without leaving any because there was none to leave. It had to have been the fourth or fifth demand for feedback I’d received that day, and I was beginning to notice that you can’t freaking breathe without some app or website demanding feedback. As if I don’t have other things to do with my life.

Worse yet, the feedback, itself, is getting increasingly meaningless. There’s the problem of fake reviews, which has caused Amazon to dump perfectly legitimate reviews because they determined that the reviewer knows the author. Then there are the feedback forms that don’t allow for comments. The providers probably have so much data they can’t read comments, but that makes the data even more useless since it can only reflect what the provider wants to ask. I’ve stopped giving Kaiser feedback because the last time they demanded it, there was no way to let them know that it wasn’t the immediate provider that had caused the issue I was having, it was something else.

Now, there’s a new wrinkle – providers that don’t accept anything less than perfect scores. Scroll down on this article from HowToGeek.com, and you’ll see why that super high rating doesn’t mean the guy driving your Lyft car is Superman. He’s probably just competent. At the counter of a business I regularly do business with, a sweet young thing constantly told customers that they would be called for feedback on their service and, “Anything less than perfect is a fail.” Alas, the reason customer service is anything but perfect at this branch is not really the fault of the agents. Corporate policy keeps the branch chronically understaffed and understocked. But it’s the agents who are being graded, so I feel obligated to say it’s great so some CEO can feel good about being a jerk.

The irony of all this is that I, too, am dependent on customer feedback to sell books. So I have to be obnoxious and beg people to give me a review every time I turn around. As if my readers don’t have other things to do with their time.

Some feedback is good and making it easy for folks to let you know there’s a problem or something is particularly good is not a bad thing. And I do occasionally look at reviews to help make a buying decision. But not when I’m trying to buy a five-dollar gadget. I don’t need to tell some company about my customer experience when I just went to the site to check my balance. There’s got to be a better way to give companies the information they need without them constantly nagging us to provide bazillia-bytes of information that generally only confirms what they want to believe.

And, please, do not give any of my books a five-star review unless it’s truly transcendent. In fact, don’t feel obligated to give me any feedback at all. I understand. Really.

Chapter Eleven

            Donald Long sighed.  The ale had gone sour again, and his flea bites had begun itching as well.  Inns such as the one he was in, two vales north of Charing Vale, were just one part of why he did not like time travel.  Still, it would be worth it when he got Elizabeth.  Then he would save what had originally been his experiment and show Roger up for the fool that he was, and the Time Board would be forced to lift the censure that Donald had been working under.  And once the censure was lifted, Donald could finally collect his assets, particularly the money and other goodies the Board didn’t know about, and get the hell out.

It had not been an easy summer.  Finding the Parkers had not been difficult.  He’d merely followed the directions he’d heard Mistress Ford give the Parkers as they’d left Downleigh.  But he’d been delayed going after them by a week, and by the time he’d reached Charing Vale, Elizabeth had been as closely mewed up as the rest of the women in the village.

Getting the confidence of Master Thomas Blount had been no small feat, either.  Fortunately, the extended trip up north had proved extremely valuable.  However, on their return, Blount was furious when he found that Master Miller’s inn was not only running, but doing even better than it had before.  Now, the old man was dead, Blount’s squad of toughs defeated and the Parkers were even more firmly ensconced.

Donald was reasonably certain this would be where he would finally get his hands on Elizabeth.  It seemed pretty unlikely the three would find somewhere else to hide before they turned up in London sometime over the next couple months.  What a disaster that had been.  The only part that was worth all this trouble was knowing how it would all fall out.

Outside the room, the floor creaked near the end of the hall.  Blount was coming.  Donald quickly reviewed his strategy.  The next meeting would have to be handled carefully.  Blount seemed ready to concede his loss and Donald couldn’t afford that.

Blount entered the room and sank into the other chair without being invited.

“Do you want to hear the latest outrage, Master Warfield?” the fat steward whined to Donald.  “They set up a tombstone over the old man’s grave, accusing me of killing him!  It isn’t my fault if he couldn’t bear paying his taxes.  I agree it was a lot of money, but it’s my due considering what his inn has robbed from my business.”

Donald nodded sympathetically.  “Are you prepared to act, then?”

“Act?”  Blount shifted.  “Act?  What is there to do, I pray you?  They’ve defeated my best men unarmed.  I can’t assess them anymore.  And they never let that girl go anywhere without at least one of them.  She’s a froward lass.  I don’t see why she’s caught your interest.”

“Never mind that for the moment.”  Donald got up and began pacing.  “Blount, we must put our heads together and outwit them.  We must evaluate their strengths and their weaknesses, and exploit the weaknesses.”

“What weaknesses?  Master Robin is as quick-witted as they come, as is Mistress Elizabeth.”

Donald cut him off.  “But consider, she always looks to Robin for direction.”

“True, so does his brother.”

“Ah, yes, Master Dean.”  Donald realized he was stroking his chin and abruptly stopped.  “He’s not nearly as quick-witted as his brother.”

“He’s no fool, either, and he’s as strong as three oxen.”

“He can be, but I find his dependence on Robin a little more than touching.”  Donald smiled.  “I think I do see a weakness we may exploit.  We’ll have to get rid of Master Robin.”

Blount snorted.  “How?  We can’t take him by force, and I don’t dare risk outright murder.”

“For heaven’s sakes, we’ll be far more subtle than that.  No.  Too many people might think an accident of Robin’s a little too convenient.”  Not that Donald cared what happened to Blount.  But he did have to keep the filthy weasel’s confidence up.  “Wait.  Did you not tell me that the Earl’s army is being called together for training, and that you would need some men from this area?”

“Why, yes, I did.”  Blount all but began jumping and down.  “Yes!  That would be perfect!  I was instructed by My Lord Featherton to choose the best men in his barony.  I can get rid of some other trouble-makers, too, at the same time.  I wonder that I didn’t think of it myself.  With both Robin and Dean gone, there’ll be ready access to the girl…”

Donald turned on him.  “Not both!  You may only conscript one male from each household.”

“But…”  Blount looked like he was about to cry.

“Patience.  Once Robin is gone, we can take care of the other two.  It’s only a matter of time before certain things happen, and we’ll have an excellent case for witchcraft.”

“Witchcraft?”  Blount laughed.  “She’s just a young thing, and besides, they’re friends of the pastor.  He’ll be sure to testify for them.  No one will doubt his word that they’re not making contracts with the Devil.”

“The pastor is the least of our worries.  We’ll arrange things so that it won’t matter what he believes.  Get enough hysteria in the village going, and they’ll be hung before the pastor can say boo.  Trust me.  With Robin gone, it won’t be long before Dean makes a mistake, and we’ll have them.  It’s only a matter of time.”

Blount looked confused.  “A mistake?”

“Never you mind.  You just go and see to it that Robin is conscripted.  I’ll see to the rest.”

Blount wheezed off.  Donald sighed in relief and went to the window for some fresh air.

Two days later the weather turned very cold.  Robin shivered as she followed Elizabeth to Master Woolwich’s house, near the end of the town.

“He’d better have that order ready,” Elizabeth grumbled, quite chilled herself.  “This is the second morning in a row there’s been frost, and it won’t get any warmer until next spring.”

“We’ll survive,” Robin sighed.

“Hm!” Elizabeth snorted.  “Of course we’ll survive.  It’s just that Master Woolwich promised that cloth over a week ago.  I don’t like being cold when I don’t have to be.”

Robin shrugged.  “I’ve heard Blount’s been making trouble for him.”

“That’s everyone’s excuse.  Master Blount hasn’t been seen in the village since we ran him off.”

Robin shrugged.  Lax tradesmen were something Elizabeth knew and dealt with well.  If her temper was a bit short, it was only because she did not relish the task.  Master Woolwich was well known for producing the finest weaving in the vale.  He was

also known for taking his time to do it.

Elizabeth would have been more forgiving but for the cold weather suddenly upon them.  No one at the inn had a cloak, and only Robin had a pair of gloves.  Elizabeth had knit them the Friday before from wool she had purchased that day.  She was still working on Dean’s.

Robin knocked on the weaver’s door.  Master Woolwich admitted them.

“Ah.”  He smiled.  “You are here for the cloth you ordered.”

“I do hope it’s ready,” said Elizabeth as she and Robin entered the weaver’s house.  “You promised it over a week ago.”

The weaver grinned apologetically.  “I’m afraid I did, didn’t I?  But no matter.  It’s ready.”  He opened a chest standing next to the wall.  “See?  One of my finer efforts, if I don’t mind saying so.”

Elizabeth didn’t reply, but went over the fabric carefully, measuring it against the length of her outstretched arm to her nose.  Bored, Robin gazed out the front window.

“Hm,” she said suddenly.

“What?” asked Master Woolwich, joining her.

“Master Roth’s little boy came running down the street from the church,” Robin said.  “I wonder what’s going on.  He seemed awfully anxious.”

“Who knows?”  Master Woolwich waved it off.  “We’ll know about it soon enough.  Are you satisfied, Mistress Wynford?”

“More or less,” she answered.  “This piece isn’t as long as I asked, but it will do.  I just don’t care to pay for more fabric that I’m getting.”

“We agreed four guineas for the lot,” said Master Woolwich.

“We agreed for fifteen yards.  There’s only fourteen here.”

Master Woolwich opened his mouth to argue, but then saw Robin watching him.

“Well, I suppose you have a point,” he said, suddenly sheepish.  “Four pounds even?”

“Four pounds then.”  Elizabeth finally smiled, but it was a little tight.  “Robin?”

Robin swaggered over and counted out the change.  Four pounds was a lot of money, but they needed the cloaks desperately.

That night, the inn was filled with grumbling men.

“What more could the fiend want?” said Master Shepwell.  “He’s already bled us dry.”

“I smell a plot,” Master Whiteford said.  “He’s been much too quiet since our innkeepers defeated his men.”

“He isn’t that subtle,” said Master Woolwich.

“But why call out the entire village and surrounding farms?” asked Master Allsworth.  “The steward has some trouble planned for us.  You mark my words.”

Robin was forced to agree, and while she didn’t say so, she was worried.  Master Blount was not that subtle.  But missing the next day’s noon gathering was out of the question.

The villagers gathered in the town’s square well before the church bell rang the noon hour.  As it did, Master Blount rode slowly up on a decrepit old horse, accompanied by his two goons, as usual, and followed by a youngish teen-ager wearing the livery of Lord Featherton.

“Herald!” Blount barked.  “Read the proclamation.”

The teen undid his scroll and cleared his throat.

“Let it be known that by the order of His Lordship, Roger Featherton, Baron of this county, one adult man from each household, to be chosen by his most faithful steward, Master Thomas Blount, shall be required to join the army of the Earl of Essex, and shall depart this day for training.  His lordship also invites any willing young men to also join with their comrades in the service of the Earl and Almighty God.”

An obscenity escaped Dean’s lips, as the crowd grumbled around him.

“For once, I agree,” Robin muttered.

“The men to be conscripted from Charing Vale are as follows,” the herald continued.  “Edward Skippington.  Samuel Shepwell, Robert Farthingate, Robin Parker…”

This time the obscenity fell from Robin’s lips.  The herald continued reading but she did not hear of any of the other names.

“How am I going to get out of this one?” she squeaked.

Dean shrugged.  “Better you than me.”

Robin pulled Dean aside and his head down to her mouth.  “Brother, dearest, this is the army?  As in big on communal living?  And I have a slight problem with living communally with men?”

“You do?  Oh.  Right.”

Robin resisted the temptation to thunk Dean in the head.

“Robin,” said Elizabeth, putting her hand on Robin’s arm.  “Maybe we can buy our way out of this.  It’ll cost a great deal, I’m sure.  Master Blount has no great love for us.  But maybe we can.”

Robin’s eyes lit up.  “Great.  The first ray of hope.”

The herald had finished with his list of names.  “All those who have been called shall come forward to be registered.  Upon which they shall be dismissed for two hours to put their affairs in order and gather their weapons.”

“Here goes nothing,” Robin grumbled as she pushed her way up to Master Blount and the scribe who was doing the actual paperwork.

A few young men ahead of her bought their way out for thirty pounds apiece.  Robin’s hopes rose still further.

“So, Master Parker,” wheezed Master Blount.

“I’m sure you’re aware of how difficult it would be for me to leave my inn,” Robin said as nicely as she could.

“I expect it is,” agreed Master Blount.  “Still, one must do one’s duty.”

“Perhaps if I were to offer my services in the form of money,” Robin said.

“One hundred pounds,” Blount said quickly.

“What!”  Robin shrieked before she could stop it.

“It will cost you one hundred pounds to avoid conscription,” Blount said calmly.  “It’s as simple as that.”

“But those other guys got out for thirty,” Robin gasped.

“So?  It will cost you one hundred.”

“Obviously, I don’t have that much.”  Robin held onto her temper with both hands.

“What a pity.  It appears you shall be joining us, then.”

“What if I were to pay it off bit by bit, say three or four pounds a week.”

“Out of the question.  Scribe, register him.”

Robin was reeling as she returned to the inn.  Amazingly enough, Dean remained cool.

“Look, all you have to do is wait a few days, then ditch them,” he explained.

“And the first place they’ll look for me is here,” Robin retorted.  “I’ll be caught and probably hung.”

“No, you won’t.  We’ll go home.  Hell, we could take off now.”

Robin swallowed, tempted.  “What about Elizabeth?”

“We’ll take another stab at re-adjustment.”  Dean turned to Elizabeth.  “Won’t we?”

Elizabeth nodded reluctantly.  “Yes.  We will.”

Robin looked at her and shook her head.  “That’s not going to work, Dean.  It’s hardly fair to Elizabeth.”

“But, Robin-“

“No buts.  I’ll have to go with them for now and then ditch.  If we all try to take off, they’ll catch us.  I’ll wait ‘til they’re not expecting it.  When I get back, we’ll just have to leave the inn, that’s all.  We can go to London, or something.  Anyplace away from Essex.”  Robin paced.  “I don’t know when I’ll get a chance to take off, so you guys sit tight and act as if you’re planning on staying.  Dean, you be extra careful.  Keep that big trap of yours shut as much as possible.  You really can’t afford to get into trouble now.”

Dean glared at her.  “Robin, I’m not that stupid.”

Robin softened.  “I know.  You’ve got a darned good head on your shoulders.  But I can’t help it.  I’m going to be worried sick, no matter what.  You take care now, okay?”

“Sure.” Dean hugged her.  “Don’t worry.  We’ll be fine.”

“Yeah.”  Robin turned to Elizabeth and hugged her.  “You keep an eye on him, and keep him out of trouble.”

Elizabeth smiled warmly.  “I will.”

Robin took a deep breath, then the cloth and gloves that Elizabeth gave her, and left the inn.

Chapter Ten

     Robin settled the tap in place in the bung hole and studied the cask in front of her.  Her eyes met Dean’s, Elizabeth’s and Master Miller’s, each in turn.

“This is it,” she said.  “If this isn’t any good, we don’t open tonight, and we’re going to have a lot of angry villagers on our hands.”

“So quit with the suspense!”  Dean bounced impatiently.  “Open the damn thing.  Here, I’ll do it.”

“Master Miller should,” said Elizabeth.

Robin looked over the old man.  He was improving.  He walked around a little as Robin let him, and Dean had taken to carrying him downstairs during the days so he could observe and talk with Elizabeth, or whoever was available.

“I don’t know,” said Robin.  “You’ve been doing very well, but we don’t want any over exertion to bring on another attack.”

Master Miller snorted.  “I’m not…”  He sighed.  “Perhaps I am that frail.”

“I’m afraid so,” said Robin.  “But at least you’re still alive, and not in any pain.”

“I guess.  Well, Master Robin, I delegate the responsibility to you.  But do be quick about it.  We don’t want the suspense straining my poor heart.”

Robin smiled as she saw Master Miller wink at Dean.  She took the tankard from Elizabeth and opened the tap.  The dark brown liquid poured from the spigot and foamed in the tankard.  After shutting the tap, Robin turned and handed the tankard to Master Miller.

“You get the first taste,” she said.  “But one sip only!”

The others groaned.  Robin remained firm.  Master Miller sighed and lifted the tankard to his lips.  He took his time evaluating the mouthful.

“Well?” asked Dean.

Master Miller swallowed.  “We open tonight with the best ale in the shire!”

“Hot damn!” yelped Dean.  He grabbed a tankard.

Robin and Elizabeth both let out little cheers.  Robin stopped long enough to prevent Master Miller from getting another taste of the ale.

“Oh, Robin,” Elizabeth pleaded on his behalf.

“You guys just don’t understand, do you?” Robin sighed.

“Please?” asked Elizabeth.  Master Miller looked woebegone.  “Just one more sip?”

Robin turned to the old man.  “Do you promise, just one?”

“My solemn word, just one sip.”  Master Miller smiled.

Robin nodded.  Master Miller put his lips to the rim, and began drinking.  And drinking.  He did not stop until he had drained the tankard.  Robin glared at him.

“You didn’t say how long a sip.”  Master Miller righteously wiped his mouth on his sleeve.

“You old fox.”  Robin laughed.  “You did that just as much to bug me as you did to get the ale.”

Master Miller laughed also, and refused to answer.

The opening that night was loud and merry.  The market day prior, Robin had let it be known that it would occur.  Her young friends spread the news most efficiently.  They all were present, with their fathers, brothers and other relatives.  Edward, in particular, seemed to enjoy being there.  Robin assumed it was his first time, and he was enjoying his new adult status.

One surprise was that Pastor Layton showed up.  Upon his entrance, the room fell quiet.  All eyes were upon him as he paid Elizabeth his penny and took a tankard of ale.  He turned to face the room.

“There are those among my brothers who believe that drinking in a public place is a profane and licentious practice,” he said slowly.  “Perhaps it is.  But I do not know that this is a good time to remind you of the evils of drunkenness.  You’ll know at least one tomorrow morning.”  There was quiet laughter.  “St. Paul, in his letter to Timothy, strongly recommended that he take some wine for his stomach, so I guess one can infer that spirits are not to be condemned.  I know good fellowship is to be commended, and I see plenty of that here.  Also, by your patronage an esteemed member of our parish is able to live off the fruits of his labor, as are his servants.  And so, to your merrymaking, good sirs.  Our Lord, Jesus Christ warns us against being glum believers.  To the continued and improved health of our host, Master John Miller!”

With a happy roar, the crowd lifted their tankards then drank.  Master Miller, resting by the keg, wept openly.  Robin sniffed back a couple tears, then went back to tapping.  Dean sat by the money box, grinning, only leaving his post when someone pawed Elizabeth.

The next day, two horsemen stopped and asked for lodging.  On market day, the following Friday, the inn’s five guest rooms were full.  There was continued speculation as to what Master Blount would do when he found out about the inn being open.  But shortly after market day, word got about that Master Blount was being kept very busy by His Lordship, which wasn’t surprising, considering the political situation.  In any case, the steward was safely in London attending his master.

Thanks to the news, the pall of tension in the vale lifted and Robin, Dean and Elizabeth were quite pleased to find themselves welcomed by Master Miller’s neighbors.  As for the rest of the village, even the prettiest young women could sometimes be seen on the streets.  The late spring days melted into the full warmth of summer weeks.  There were periodic rumblings, for example in June, when the king, now exiled from London, asked for a military force from the local aristocracy.  But most of the villagers seemed to feel that the dispute was among their betters and seldom worried themselves beyond the occasional wish that any fighting would happen elsewhere.

When the king raised his standard against the Parliament in August, that caught everybody’s attention.

“Well, it’ll be a war now,” sighed Master Miller, the day the news arrived in the village.  “It’ll by the grace of God if it doesn’t come here.”

His health had improved considerably.  Robin had him working with her in the garden for exercise every day.  But while he seemed hale and hearty, his full strength was long gone.  He seldom complained, but Robin could tell he was not happy about the loss.

Still, the days and nights passed pleasantly.  Dean noticed the slight change in the weather first.

“You know, it’s getting colder in the mornings,” he remarked at breakfast one day.

“Yeah, it has been,” said Robin.

Elizabeth almost sniffed the air.  “Autumn is coming.”

“Come on, it’s barely September,” Dean said.

Robin sent him a warning glare, which he mercifully caught before Master Miller noticed anything odd about Dean’s reaction.  Robin took him aside later.

“Dean, I know it’s just getting really hot at home this time of year, but most other places in the northern hemisphere, this is when the weather starts getting colder.”

Dean tossed his head.  “I knew that.  I just spaced.”

Robin rolled her eyes and walked off.

“I’ve been doing better!” he shouted after her.

He had been.  It was almost as if he had finally melted into Seventeenth Century life.

The next day, however, the air was thick in the village, and it was not with the weather.  The tension was back as was word that Master Blount was back to oversee His Lordship’s properties.

Business that night was slow.  Thanks to the rumors in the market that morning, Robin had a strong feeling she knew who she would see at the inn that night, and he did not disappoint.  It was about the middle of the evening when he entered the best room.  He was portly, with a soiled shirt and open doublet.  He had dark and greasy hair and he wore on his chin one of the fashionable pointed beards.  He was accompanied by two large men, although neither were as big as Dean.  Goons, Robin called them mentally.

The others made room for the three men willingly.  Their stench was unbelievable.  Their leader leered at Elizabeth.

“Ale for me and my friends.” he ordered through gums half-filled with rotting teeth.

“One penny for each, first, sir,” Elizabeth replied.

The man dug the coins out of his filthy purse and handed them to her.

“You’ve spirit, wench.”  He grinned at her.  “More than the others.”

“Thank you, sir.”  Elizabeth ran to get the tankards filled.

The men finished their ale quickly.  As Elizabeth came to collect their tankards, the leader took her arm.

“I have need of a wench,” he said.  “I think you’ll do quite nicely.”

“Thank you, sir, but no.”  Elizabeth twisted free.

“I’m not asking,” the man snarled.

He grabbed at her again, but she skittered back.

“She stays here.”  Dean appeared between the men and Elizabeth.  He was calm and that, along with his size, made him very threatening.

The two men looked at their leader, their faces tentative, at best.  Robin slid up next to Dean.  The three men sized up the two, and the stares of the glowering crowd.

“Very well,” said the leader.

He turned and left, his goons following.

“Well,” said Robin trying to cover her intense relief.  “I dare say we’ve just met the good Master Blount.”

“Indeed you have.” said Master Shepwell, Samuel’s father.  “He’s not happy about this place being open.  His inn in the next vale has been almost empty all summer.  The word has spread that you brew very good ale.”

“We damn well better,” said Dean.

“Master Blount is not a good man to have as an enemy,” piped up one squeaky voice.

“We’re not good enemies to have either,” Robin replied brusquely, and returned to the keg.

The next morning, Master Miller wanted to know what the commotion had been the night before.

“Master Thomas Blount wanted to take Elizabeth with him,” Robin explained as she arranged the pillows on the bench in the kitchen.  “None of us took too kindly to that.”

“He didn’t succeed, either,” Master Miller smiled at Elizabeth, who was stirring porridge.  Then he sighed.  “He’ll make trouble for us, that’s for certain.  We’ll just have to weather the storm.  There isn’t much he can do.  He’s tried tangling with me before.  He can’t buy enough witnesses to do me in, or my inn, for that matter.  The villagers will only be pushed so far.  You’ve seen all the devices they have for getting around him.  I’ve a few myself you haven’t seen.”

“I don’t doubt it,” said Robin.  “Now you rest.  If you’re good, I’ll let you take a walk in the town square today.”

“Second childhood,” grumbled the old man.  “I’m not in the seventh age yet!”

“Not yet, you old Pantaloon,” Robin teased.  “But fast approaching it.”

Master Miller snorted.

“What’s all that about?” asked Dean.

“’As You Like It,'” Robin replied.  “The ‘All the world’s a stage…’ speech.  Pastor Layton read it to us last Sunday.  Remember?”

“That’s right.” said Dean.  “Each man’s acts being seven ages.  What was the rest of that?”

“Come, my son, and heed my instruction,” said Master Miller.

Robin laughed.  Dean had built quite a rapport with Master Miller, as had they all in their own way.  Dean’s friendly ignorance gave Master Miller much room to show off his knowledge.  Elizabeth tended to him like a dutiful daughter, and often took his side against Robin’s dietary rules.  Robin stood up to the old man and challenged him, as he challenged her.

Of course, the debates were never quite as intense as they were Sunday afternoons when Pastor Layton stopped by.  Robin sometimes worried that the intensity would strain Master Miller’s heart.  But he seemed invigorated by it all, and not any the worse for it.

The Sunday following Master Blount’s visit, there wasn’t a debate.  When Pastor Layton arrived, Master Miller sent Robin out of the room, saying he had business to do with the pastor that wasn’t for young ears.  Robin shrugged.  Pastor Layton couldn’t have been all that much older than she.  But then she reflected Master Miller probably thought of her as being very young because of her lack of a beard.

Robin wandered around downstairs of the inn, looking for Dean and Elizabeth.  She couldn’t find them, but had to admit to herself, she hadn’t looked that hard.  She found herself wandering down the path that led to the ocean, which was only a couple hundred yards away.

It was a nice peaceful day.  It had rained that morning.  The sky filled again with clouds and mist.  The trees along the path were just starting to fade, and here and there a leaf was turning red.  They had been back in time for almost six months.  Seventeenth century life seemed to be the way she had always known life to be.  The distant future of her birth seemed almost to be a dream.

Robin strolled along the beach, lost in her thoughts, wondering what Master Miller had looked like as a young man.  She knew he had been married, but had had no children.  It seemed a pity he was so ill.  He might have been a good lover.

Robin stopped, startled.  Then she laughed.  A sexual relationship with anyone in that time period could have some serious consequences.  Even without the emotional aspects, there were venereal diseases to consider, for which there were no cures at that time, or worse still, pregnancy.  Robin wondered what the effects of time travel would be on an unborn child.

In the distance she heard the church bell tolling five o’clock.  She was surprised she had been away for so long, and hurried back to the inn.

Robin’s peace was shattered early the next day by the arrival of Master Blount.  Dean had seen him coming down the road.  He didn’t wait for the steward to knock on the inn’s door, but hustled Elizabeth out to the stable with him.  That left Robin to answer the knock and admit Master Blount.  He insisted on talking to Master Miller, who met with him in the common room, along with Robin.

“As you may know,” Master Blount wheezed.  “I’ve come to the vale to collect the taxes.”

“I’m not surprised,” replied Master Miller coldly.

“I’ll not take long with this, sir,” Master Blount continued.  “Your due is ten pounds.”

“Ten pounds!”  Master Miller almost jumped up in fury.  Robin feared another attack.  But Master Miller composed himself, and seemed to be breathing normally.  “Ten pounds.  That is madness.  I’ve barely made nine this year, what with my illness.  And past years, I haven’t paid over five.”

“Nonetheless, that is your due.”  Master Blount pulled a paper from his grubby doublet.  “It is decreed by His Lordship, Baron of this hundred, and sealed by his seal.”

“Set in wax by your hand,” grumbled Master Miller.

“Are you accusing me of improper conduct?”  Master Blount pulled himself up in righteous indignation, but Robin could almost see the grin.

“I accuse no one.  Ten pounds.  Master Robin, pay the man.”

“How?”  Robin was astounded.  She knew there wasn’t much more than three pounds in the money box.  She had pulled some to buy supplies on market day, then gave a complete accounting to Master Miller earlier that morning.

“I believe we have the money in the box.  It just may take a little longer for me to pay you back.”

“You owe us nothing, sir.”  Robin went and fetched the money, drawing the balance from her own precious reserves.

She took her time counting the pennies out, and the few shillings.  There were a couple gold angels in the horde, but Robin wasn’t about to let Master Blount have those.  As soon as the steward had left, Robin checked Master Miller.  He seemed all right, just very angry.

“You’d better rest today,” she said.

“I’ll rest well enough when that whoreson is in his grave!” Master Miller yelled.

He slumped slightly on the bench, but it was clear he was just sulking and not in any pain.  His breathing seemed normal as well

Robin sighed, then went out to the stable to tell Dean and Elizabeth that it was safe to go back into the house.

“Just watch him extra carefully,” Robin told Elizabeth. “If he seems to be having any pain, or trouble breathing, call me.”

But Master Miller seemed almost merry at lunch.  Not that he had forgotten that morning’s fleecing, but he had put it from his mind, as choler was not good for his heart.  Robin rested a little easier.  Later, she insisted he nap in the common room while they brewed the ale.

While they worked, Dean talked of all the ways he could get revenge on Master Blount.  Most of them were childish pranks, at best, and reminded Robin of a B-rate teen flick she had seen. She kept checking on Master Miller all afternoon.  He slept, his breathing deep and even.

They had just taken the wort off the fire to cool, when they heard the thud in the best room.  Dean and Robin tore into the room, with Elizabeth close behind.  What Master Miller had been doing walking around, Robin had no time to wonder.  He lay in a

crumpled heap in the center of the floor.

There was no time for thought.  Dean already had the old man laying on his back, and tore open his shirt.  Robin skidded to Dean’s side, next to Master Miller’s head.  She glanced at Dean.  He nodded.  His hands were already in position over Master Miller’s chest.  Robin took a deep breath, forcing the man’s head back, and clearing the mouth.

They worked for what seemed an eternity.  Robin blew air into the aging lungs with all the force she could muster, while Dean tried to force the tired heart into beating again.  Robin checked the pulse over and over again.  Nothing.  She blew some more.  Her lungs ached.  Perspiration dribbled down Dean’s face.  The form remained inert.

Robin checked the pulse one more time, then sat back shaking.  Tears clouded her eyes, then spilled onto her face.

“Why are you stopping, damn it?” Dean yelled.

“It’s no use, Dean,” Robin sniffed.

“No, damn it!  We’ve gotta keep trying.  He’s still there.”

“It’s too late.”  Robin softly touched his arm.  “He’s already growing cold.”

Dean slowly sat back, forced to face what he did not want to.  It wasn’t real.  It couldn’t be.  He jumped up and ran out.

“Dean!” Robin called after him.

“We must prepare him.”  Elizabeth said softly.  “Come, help me set up the big table.  We’ll lay him out there.  We’ll use his linen sheet for the shroud.  That would make him happy.  Come.  We’ll prepare the body, then you must fetch the pastor.  They’ll have the mourning tonight, and we’ll bury him tomorrow.  It’s a good thing the weather’s so cold.  He won’t smell so fast.  Come, Robin.”

Elizabeth gently pulled Robin up.  Her soft chatter was soothing, and the ensuing action eased the shock, and the pain.

“But Dean…” Robin protested weakly.

“He needs to be alone.” said Elizabeth.  “I’ll go find him in a bit.”

“It’ll be dark soon.”

They set up the table.

“I’ll take a lantern.  Go fetch the sheet.”

Robin obeyed.  When she returned, Elizabeth had her spread the sheet on the table.  Together they lifted the corpse, then wound the sheet neatly around it, knotting the ends.

“That’s well done.”  Elizabeth smiled briefly.  “Now go fetch Pastor Layton.  I’ll find Dean.”

Robin stumbled out into the growing mist.

Mistress Layton opened the door and saw at once something was wrong.

“William!” she called, leading Robin into the house.

Pastor Layton was there in seconds.

“There is trouble.” he observed.

Robin nodded.  “Master Miller, he had another attack this afternoon.  He’s…”  She couldn’t say it.

Pastor Layton nodded.  “Let’s hope and pray God had mercy on his soul.”

“Elizabeth said for you to come,” Robin sniffed back the tears.

“Of course.  Let me get my cloak.”

“I’ll have the boy send some supper over,” said Mistress Layton.

“Thank you, my dear.  I’m afraid I might be late.”

“You stay as long as you are needed.  I’ll wait for you.”

Robin turned to the door.  Pastor Layton followed.  The inn was empty except for the eerie presence of the corpse.

“Dean ran off,” Robin said with much agitation.

“You loved the old man, didn’t you?” asked the pastor.

“Yes, very much,” Robin choked.  “He was like my father.”

“Then why don’t you shed tears for him?”

“Because I’m a man.” Or supposed to be one, Robin thought.

“Since when do men not weep for a good man?”

Robin turned.  Within seconds the tears were released, and Robin crumpled onto a bench and sobbed.  Years of loneliness and pain flowed out as Robin shed the tears that even as a woman she had denied herself.

Elizabeth had hastily lit a lantern and was hurrying down the path to the beach.  Dean had spoken often of his love of the ocean.  He would be there, if anywhere.

She had buried her own grief in her concern for the others.  There was time for mourning, and she would weep then.  Someone had to stay level-headed to see that the funeral was properly arranged.  Of course, there was her anger at that thief, Death, who had robbed her of yet another good friend.  But others had robbed her, too, and would have given her over to Death.  But no, there was no point in dwelling on that.

She found Dean on the beach, viciously tossing rocks into the waves, whose roar masked the sound of her steps.  The fading light of the sun caught the tears on his cheeks.

“Oh, crud,” he sniffed as she came up.  “You would have to catch me blubbering.”

“Blubbering?  You’re weeping for a good man.  What shame is there in that?”  Elizabeth held up the lantern so that he could see her.

“Where I come from… Well, I guess there isn’t really.  But guys just don’t cry back home.”

“And you do.”

Dean wiped his cheek with the back of his hand.  “Not around any of my friends.”

“They don’t seem very good friends to me.”

“Yeah, well, they’re all I got.”  He stopped and looked at her.  “Except you.”

“And Robin.”

“She’s my sister.”

Elizabeth nodded.  “She’s worried about you.”

“It figures.”  Dean tossed another rock into the waves.  “Why am I getting on her case?  It’s not like we didn’t try.  Hell, she was right.  He was getting cold right under my hands.  I’ve never had anything happen to me like that in my life!”

“Never?”

“People don’t die as easily back home, and when they do, it’s in a hospital.”

Elizabeth shivered, but Dean didn’t quite notice.

“I never been so scared, either,” he continued.  “And why Master Miller?  Why not that b-”

Elizabeth put her hand on his arm.  “Please, Dean.  That’s not for us to say.  We must just accept it.”

“Aren’t you sad?”

“Very.”  Elizabeth suddenly sniffed, her own grief catching her unawares.

“Oh, Elizabeth.”  Dean gathered her into his arms.

Together they cried, holding each other, protecting each other from Death, the wind and the mist closing down around them.

“I feel so empty,” Dean whispered.

“I, too.”  Elizabeth looked up into his face, then reached up and found his lips with hers.

They held each other for a couple minutes longer, then Dean slowly steered Elizabeth up the beach to a small cave.  She smiled when she saw it and led the way inside.  Dean piled up some of the dried driftwood he’d put in the corner earlier that summer over the ashes of that previous Sunday’s fire as Elizabeth lit a twig off of the lantern.  The fire caught quickly, the smoke sliding into the airy cavern above them.

The two just sat holding each other and watching the flames dance around the

wood.

“I need this,” Dean whispered after a while.  “I don’t feel so empty anymore.  I don’t think I ever did, at least not since you came along.  Geez, that sounds corny.”

“It sounds pretty.”  Elizabeth smiled and squeezed his hand.

“I swear, Elizabeth, sitting here like this with you, in some ways, there’s nothing better.  The world may be going to hell out there, but here I feel peaceful.  I love you.”

“I love you, Dean.”

There was another long pause.

“We’d better get going,” Dean said.

“Yes.  Robin will wonder what happened to us.”

“Yeah.”

Reluctantly, they gathered themselves together, and crawled out of their hiding place.

For Robin there was no way to take refuge.  But the young boys of the village gave her the most comfort.  They showed up at the inn shortly after she stopped weeping, bearing lanterns and the supper sent by Mistress Layton.  In the kitchen, she discovered the cooled wort.

“Oh no,” she groaned.  “This needs pitching.”

“We’ll help,” volunteered Samuel.  “Come on.”

Pastor Layton smiled and suggested Robin find comfort in activity.

Dean and Elizabeth showed up an hour after sundown.  At the same time, the villagers arrived to pay their respects.  The visiting went on late, with many of them paying for the porter Robin offered freely.

“We’ll not take the bread from your mouth,” said Master Woolwich, one of the weavers.  “That’s already been done today.”

Robin couldn’t help but wonder at the way the news had spread about the exorbitant tax taken from the inn that morning.  It was generally agreed that it had brought on Master Miller’s final attack.

Robin yawned as the last guest left the inn.  It wasn’t particularly late, but Robin felt more than spent.  Only Pastor Layton remained.

“You’d best get back to your wife,” Robin told him.

“I’ve more important business, I’m afraid,” he replied, then motioned at Dean and Elizabeth, as well.  “Come with me.”

They followed him to Master Miller’s bedroom.  Pastor Layton removed a panel from the headboard to reveal a hole in the wall.  From it, he removed a metal box.  He sat down on the bed, sighing, before he opened the box.

“One sometimes wonders what signs a person may have had before death,” the pastor said.  “Last Sunday when he sent you out, Master Robin, he bade me make his will.  Like many in this village, his fortunes were greater than anyone knew, to protect them from Master Blount’s avarice.  There are fifty guineas, give or take a shilling or two, in this box.”

“So much?” Elizabeth gasped.

“A year’s income for the inn,” Robin said.

“He’d been saving it for a long time,” Pastor Layton explained.  “He didn’t need much, being on his own, as he was. In any case, twenty guineas are to go to his niece, twenty to the church, and ten to you, plus the inn, the land it stands on, and all the livestock.”

“To us?” Dean said in shock.

“He had a great regard for all three of you,” replied Pastor Layton.  “He said you were the most capable of running it.  He didn’t care to burden his niece with it.  Here is the deed, made over to you.”

“Terrific,” grumbled Robin.  “It’s not that I’m not grateful.  Oh, never mind.  It’s all for the better, I suppose.”

“Guess we’re kinda stuck, aren’t we?” Dean chuckled.

“You said it.”  Robin noticed the Pastor’s puzzled look.  “My brother and I left our father to travel and seek out the world.  We took our cousin with us because her father had died, and had lost his land besides.  We were hoping to establish her somewhere and continue with our travels.  With the inn, she’ll be in good shape.”

“We don’t have to leave her,” said Dean.

“She can’t run this place alone,” Robin retorted.  “We’ll have to marry her off.”

“Don’t you think she should have some say in that?” Dean snarled.

“I’m sure she’ll obey your wishes, as all virtuous women do,” said the pastor.  “However, I wouldn’t make any hasty decisions, nor would I let it be known too widely that you are searching for a husband for your cousin.  Master Blount might find it too convenient.  Marriage contracts are too easily made, and Master Blount can afford a lot of witnesses, for when he makes it and when he breaks it.”

“I don’t doubt it,” grumbled Robin.

“Don’t worry, Pastor,” said Dean.  “I’ll see to it he keeps his hands off her.”

Pastor Layton smiled.  “If anyone can, it’ll be you, and your brother’s quick wits.  Well, I must take my leave.”  He rose.

“I take it the funeral’s tomorrow?” asked Robin.

“Indeed, yes, on the stroke of nine.  We’ll start the procession here.  I don’t favor such things, but the other townspeople seem to require it.  I’ll give the sermon in the churchyard.”

“I’d best get chickens plucked,” sighed Elizabeth.

“You rest,” the pastor told her gently.  “You’ve had a hard day.  My wife is already seeing to tomorrow.  You all should go straight to bed.  You need sleep now more than anything.  After tomorrow, you’ll have an inn to keep running.”

Robin showed the pastor out, then wearily took his advice.  Dean was already snoring as she entered their room.

The next day Pastor Layton made a very short sermon, reminding the villagers that as Master Miller was, so would they be.  But the brevity was largely due to the pouring rain.  Robin didn’t envy the grave diggers their wet job.

The funeral feast was put off until that evening.  Mistress Layton and the other townswomen provided the food and drink.  Elizabeth, having adjusted to having a kitchen all to herself, was perturbed to see it so crowded.  But she acquiesced, allowing the townfolk to pay their homage to a man they had long loved.

Robin was surprised that Master John Miller was so fondly remembered.  His many good deeds were talked about for hours, and they were numerous.  It was strange to see so many women in the best room.  Usually Elizabeth was the only obvious female there.  But this night was a funeral, and there was some celebrating to do.

The crowd was far from somber.  They’d done all their crying that day at the graveside.  That evening was for happy remembrances, and relief that they were not in Master Miller’s place.

“Master Miller loved music and dancing,” Samuel explained to Robin.  “It’s only fitting that we remember him that way.”

Indeed, several people had brought pipes and drums.  There was much singing.  Robin, loosened by far too much ale, even joined in, as she could.

In spite of the festivity, there were many curses leveled at Master Blount.

“I should like revenge,” Robin confided to Samuel, very much in her cups.  “I should like to get him back.”

“Master Blount?”

“Who else?”  Robin took a long pull on her latest tankard-full.  “Murder’s no good.  It’s too messy, and someone’s bound to find out.  Besides, if I kill him, his troubles are over.  I’d rather make him live with something.”

Samuel took a long pull and thought about it  “Maim him?”

“Too messy.  We could get him in trouble with his boss.”

“You’ll need a lot of money to buy witnesses.”

“I’ll carve it in stone, Master Blount’s a…  That’s it!”  Robin knocked over Samuel’s tankard as she slapped the table.  “I’ll get a gravestone for Master Miller, and I’ll carve on it how Master Blount killed him.”

Samuel gazed at the tankard, which, fortunately, had been emptied before it fell.

“My father does stonework,” he offered, finally.  “I’ll send him to you first thing tomorrow.”

“Okay.  Do that.”  Robin hoisted her tankard to toast with Samuel then noticed his knocked over one.  “Oops.”

The two looked at each other and began to giggle.

Later, Robin staggered to bed, chuckling about her revenge on Master Blount.  But she wasn’t chuckling the next morning.

“Oh, shavings,” she grumbled to Elizabeth, who had wakened her.  “I need a Bloody Mary.”

“A what?”

“Two ounces of vodka, tomato juice, a dash of Tabasco, three if you’re hung.”  Robin winced as her stomach lurched.  “You don’t even know what any of that stuff is.”

Elizabeth smiled.  “You drank too much last night.”

“You think?”  Robin rolled over and pulled the blanket over her head.

“I’ve some hot porridge and some cabbage leaves downstairs for you.”

“Cabbage leaves?”

“For your head.”  Elizabeth gently removed the blanket.  “It’s a good cure.”

“About as good as anything besides aspirin, a Bloody Mary and time.”

“Come along.  The sun’s been up two hours already.”

Robin merely groaned and pulled the blanket back.

As if her headache weren’t bad enough, Dean wasn’t in the least hung, and was in excellent spirits.

“I’ve only been hung once,” he announced when Robin had finally staggered downstairs.  “I was shooting tequila.  Boy, I was sick then.  That tequila crap is mean stuff.”

Robin merely groaned as she bent over her porridge.

Elizabeth left to answer the knocking at the front door.

“No, no, come on in.” she told the person who had knocked.  “He’s in the kitchen.  This way.”

With her was Master Shepwell.  Robin glanced at him listlessly, then nibbled at a cabbage leaf.

“My son said you wished a gravestone to be made for Master Miller,” said Master Shepwell.

“I did?” Robin grunted.  Slowly memories from the night before slipped into place.  “Uh, yeah.  I guess I was feeling it pretty badly.”

“Samuel isn’t in much better shape,” chuckled the farmer.  “Do you still wish the stone?”

“Yeah, I guess I do,” sighed Robin.

“It’d be nice,” volunteered Dean.  “What do we put on it?”

“I think a moral for Master Blount would be good,” Elizabeth suggested.

“I agree,” said Master Shepwell.

“But what?” mused Robin.  “Wait, I think something’s coming.  Get me something to write with.”

Elizabeth produced some charcoal and the back of a roasting tray, and the four of them went to work.  One hour, and several revisions later, the inscription was set:

“Witness on this Stone before you stand

Read how Avarice killed an Honest Man

A greedy Taxman was the Bloke

And Master Miller’s poor Heart was Broke

Forced to Pay more Twice he ow’d

The rest o’ his Fortune on this Stone be Stow’d

John Miller

Died the 1st of October 1642

Aged 71 yrs

Cursed be he that moves this Stone or my Bones”

Master Shepwell copied the whole thing down with a quill pen and some ink on a piece of paper he had brought.

“There!” he sighed as he finished.  He flourished the paper proudly.  “I’m not the only stone cutter here, but I write the best, so I do the gravestones, when they be needed.”

“How much is all this going to cost?” Robin asked.

“It’s not cheap, I’m afraid,” Master Shepwell shook his head.  “Maybe two pounds for the stone, three if you want a good one, then there’s my labor to consider.”

“Of course,” Robin said quickly.  “Five pounds for it all?”

The farmer looked startled.  He hadn’t planned on getting that much.  Master Robin was known to drive a hard bargain.

“Yes, certainly,” Master Shepwell stammered.

“You may have it in advance.”  Robin pulled a small bag from her belt.  “Aside for some money which I withdrew for supplies, this is all the old man had to leave us, except for the inn and the property on which it stands, and the livestock.  But we need those to live.”

“Your love for him must have been great,” said Master Shepwell.

Robin smiled.  “It was.  But I also don’t want Master Blount to get any more of my late master’s money than he already has.”

“He may try,” said Master Shepwell.  “But I doubt he’ll do it through the taxes for a while.  My Lord Roger Featherton might find it a little strange that this inn was assessed twice in so short a time.”

“We’ll be ready,” Dean said.  “We’ve heard about his other tricks.  It won’t be easy to catch us napping.”

“Easy, Dean,” said Robin, still feeling the previous night’s excess.  “Why don’t you show Master Shepwell out?”

The attack did not arrive that night.  Robin doubted that Master Blount was waiting through any respect for the dead.  Nor could she imagine Blount having the subtlety to wait and create a psychological advantage through tension.  He probably just hadn’t gotten around to it.

It was late the next night when the goons showed.  The evening’s business had been finished for a few hours, and the inn was quiet.  Two of the guest rooms were filled, one with an official messenger of the Earl of Essex.

There were five men, large by local standards, one as tall as Robin, but no larger.  Elizabeth heard them first, from her bed in the kitchen.  They crashed through the street door.  Elizabeth silently hurried up the second stairs and woke up Dean and Robin.  The two heard the noise and Robin nodded.

The men were in the kitchen, throwing whatever food they could find about.  Two tore open Elizabeth’s bed and tossed straw and ripped sheet everywhere.  Dean ran out the back door and around, and bolted the one kitchen door to the yard.  Robin waited, hiding on the other side of the door leading to the best room.

When the men discovered they could not force the bolted kitchen door, they started through the other.  The doorway was narrow, and only one man could pass at a time.  Dean had joined Robin by then and the two were ready on either side of the doorway.

As the first man passed through, Dean whirled around and landed his right fist square in the man’s face.  The man fell backwards into his companions, who tumbled into the kitchen.  Robin grabbed the one man’s feet and quickly dragged him, unconscious, into the best room.  Elizabeth had the rope ready and tied the fellow.

At the same time, Dean’s fists hammered into the next unfortunate.  This man sighed as his chin cracked under a right cross, and went out.  Dean pulled him into the best room, as Robin tripped his friend and knocked him unconscious with a blow to the back of his neck.

The next two came out with swords drawn.  The first tripped on his fallen comrade.  Robin kicked the sword away, then dodged as he grabbed for her feet.  He was up in an instant and faced off against her.  She was taller, but he had more weight, and he decided to use it.  He flew at her and his hands landed on her throat.  Robin brought her arms between his and broke his grasp.  She pulled back as he caught her shoulders and knee-jerked her.  It hurt like hell, but it did not have the incapacitating effect her opponent expected.  Stung, and angry, Robin charged the surprised man, pounding his belly with her fists, then kicking him where he had hit her.  He was incapacitated.

Dean had an equally difficult time.  It didn’t matter to the swordsman that Dean was unarmed.  Dean dodged, avoiding the jabs and slices coming at him.  He knew he had to get in close to get the man, but getting around the three feet of really sharp sword was not going to be easy.

Trenchers and tankards were all over the floor.  Dean kicked a tankard under the swordsman’s feet.  He stumbled just enough to give Dean a chance to bend and throw rotting straw into the man’s face.  Under that cover Dean rushed him.  He tackled the man, then got a good grip on the hilt as they fell.  The swordsman had a better grip and hung on as the two rolled on the floor.  Dean rolled on top, straddled the man, and banged the sword hand on the floor.  The man’s grip held as he struggled beneath Dean.  The grip broke.  Dean threw the sword away, and landed a fist in the man’s face.  He sighed and went out.

Behind Dean, one of the first three came to and stood up.  In his hand was a knife.  A whip lashed out and caught his wrist.

“I wouldn’t do that,” said the smooth educated voice of the Earl’s messenger.

Robin staggered up straight.

“I’m sorry, sir, if your rest has been disturbed,” she said breathing heavily.

“It looks like yours has been more disturbed than mine.”  The messenger smiled as he surveyed the scene.  “The two of you did this?”

“Well, they wrecked the place first,” Robin said.

The messenger laughed.  “Good for you.  Why don’t we get these men bound before you send for the sheriff?”

“Actually, I think he’ll be here tomorrow, sir,” Elizabeth said.

“Oh?  Hm.”  The messenger thought.  “I have heard of things like this going on in this village.  I wonder if Master Blount has anything to do with it.  He owns the inn two vales over.  It’s a nasty place.  The ale’s bad, the food is worse, and the rooms here are nice and clean.”

“I’m glad we’ve got your good recommendation,” said Robin.

“I’m glad to give it.  I think I shall tarry here a while tomorrow to see what falls out.  The Earl’s business is not urgent, and he’d like to know about a dishonest steward.”

“You’re welcome to it, sir,” Robin replied.  “I’ll not charge you for the room tonight since your rest was disturbed.”

“You keep your money.  This has been well worth it.”  The messenger yawned.  “Well, good night.  I’m going back to bed.”

After Robin, Dean and Elizabeth finished tying up the five men, they returned to bed also, with Elizabeth taking one of the guest rooms.

The next morning, Master Blount showed up promptly, his two personal goons in tow.

“Master Robin,” he wheezed.  “I understand you had some trouble here last night.  I hope you understand that I am charged with keeping the peace here.”

“Oh, it’s been kept,” Robin replied, allowing the steward to enter.  “In fact, it’s good thing you’re here.  These five men need to be conducted to the local gaol.”

She didn’t smile outwardly, but the look on Master Blount’s face as he saw his henchmen bound and gagged on the best room floor was even more satisfactory than she’d anticipated.

Better yet, he was prevented from making any untoward accusations by the presence of the Earl’s messenger.  There was little the steward could do but accept the situation as the local authority, so he had the five men escorted out, after hiring a cart and horse to transport the prisoners to the next town’s gaol.  Before he left, the Earl’s messenger suggested that he would take it very much amiss if any more mischief occurred at his favorite inn.  Master Blount departed, defeated.

Essays, general essay

Ta-Dah! It’s the Cover for A Ring for a Second Chance

November 17 is now less than a month away, and that means Release Day for my latest novel, A Ring for a Second Chance. It’s a bit of a departure for me in that it’s a fantasy about a young king who is deposed by his evil cousin, so he and his growing family must hide as poor farmers until he can take his rightful place.

The fun thing about the novel is that it’s actually the sequel to the very first novel I ever wrote, which was an expanded version of a popular fairy tale.

Today, however, is all about the cover. My friend Gingko Lee designed it and did an awesome job!

 

 

You can get a free ebook version (Kindle or epub) if you send me an email from the box to the right. The only catch is that you need to read it and post a review on either Amazon or GoodReads or your favorite retail site before November 17.

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.