Chapter Seventeen

Elizabeth kept her morning nausea and her secret to herself. By Christmas Eve, there was no doubt in her mind what her problem was. The only trouble was how was she going to break the news to Robin and Dean? She didn’t think either of them would be happy about it. Yet she feared Robin’s reaction more than Dean’s.

Dean, for his part, sensed that something was amiss, but figured it was probably the whole marriage thing again and decided to let Elizabeth tell him what was going on when she was ready.

Robin was simply too preoccupied to notice anything going on with anybody. She told herself she was concentrating on the candle trade and keeping Master Chandler safe out on the streets. But finally, on Christmas Eve, she had to face facts. She was falling fast and hard for Master Chandler.

They had slipped out just after the clock had struck eleven to a house in the neighborhood, where Master Chandler had said the solemn Midnight Mass. Afterwards, they only stayed long enough to greet everyone there, and then were sent off home.

“What a night,” Master Chandler sighed with deep satisfaction, as they stepped outside. He adjusted the cloak Dean had loaned him and chuckled, his breath making little clouds in the cold air. “It’s beautiful tonight. I do believe the clouds are clearing. Look, you can see a couple stars, and wait, there’s the moon. I can’t wait until tomorrow. I do hope Mistress Elizabeth will be pleased.”

“About what?” Robin asked.

Master Chandler smiled mysteriously. “I’ve arranged a little surprise for the three of you. You’ve all been working so hard.”

Robin shrugged. “I guess. I don’t mind. It can be pretty satisfying.”

“Working hard and well usually is.”

“It is.” Robin shivered a little in the chill, then looked away. “Do you ever get lonely, like for a woman?”

Master Chandler chuckled. “As in desiring a woman’s flesh, I take it. Is that what’s been troubling you, my son?”

“More or less.”

“You’re young and healthy. It’s no surprise. Even I occasionally feel the yearnings.” His smile grew utterly beatific. “But I think of Christ crucified, there’s no more glorious thought.”

Robin pressed on. “Don’t you ever regret giving all that up?”

“A family, you mean?”

“And, you know, relations with a woman.”

Master Chandler smiled and shook his head. “I’ve never regretted it. I’ve found such inexpressible joy in God’s service.”

Robin forced herself to smile. “I can see that.”

Master Chandler paused and looked at her. “Are you thinking of taking up the religious life?”

“Hardly.” Robin wanted to talk him out of it. “It’s too dangerous.”

“For the body, perhaps.” Master Chandler trudged on. “But far better for the soul. I can think of no greater pleasure than to look upon God’s face and offer Him boundless praises.” Master Chandler’s face all but glowed. “It’s the old Pauline dilemma, I’m afraid. I want so to continue here, serving His people, and yet to be with Our Lord is  such a far greater thing, I can’t help but long for it.” He chuckled. “But bound to earth I am. I’ll make the best of it. Well, here we are already.”

In the kitchen, Master Chandler stopped long enough to give Robin his blessing before they went upstairs.

Robin went to bed feeling vaguely annoyed, but less with Master Chandler than with herself. She remembered reading somewhere that women who continually fell for inaccessible men had some issue or other, and she couldn’t remember what it was. But it certainly seemed to be her pattern.

The next day, after church —Master Chandler made a habit of showing up like any other neighbor at the regular Church of England services and always with his new household in tow — Robin wearily made her way upstairs to her room. Dean followed her.

“There’s gonna be a lot of people coming over,” he told her.

“Yeah, I know.” Robin pulled off her boots. “I’m going to try to catch a few before they get here.”

Dean watched her for a moment. “You seem kinda depressed.”

Robin glared at her left boot. “I don’t know.”

“Elizabeth said you were.”

“Did she say what about?” Robin snarled.

“Hell, how’s she gonna know?” Dean’s voice got more defensive than he intended.

Robin backed down. “I guess she wouldn’t. I shouldn’t have snapped.”

Dean sat down next to her. “Is it Christmas?”

“What do you mean?”

Dean shrugged. “It just doesn’t seem like Christmas. There’s no tree, no presents, no carols, just an extra long church service.”

“Wait ‘til this afternoon.”

“Well, if it isn’t Christmas, what are you bugged about?”

Robin sighed. “I don’t know if you’d understand. You’ll probably think it’s silly.”

“Try me.”

Robin gazed out of the window. “I think I’m in love with Master Chandler.”

“So?”

She glared at him. “Dean, for starters, I’m a man, or supposed to be one.”

“So tell him the truth. He’d probably understand.”

“Like hell, he would.” Robin got up and started pacing. “And even if he did, there’s the whole time issue. I’m not staying here for the rest of my life, and bringing him with me is not going to happen.”

“You could work around that, maybe go back and forth a lot.”

Robin rolled her eyes. “It’s not that simple and even if it was…  Dean, it just wouldn’t work. He’s too absorbed in his candles and his charity work to be absorbed in me. It’s the same problem I always have. Inevitably, I fall for the guy whose first love is something else. “

“Or just plain not available.” Dean sniggered. “Who was it when you were in college? That married physics professor?”

“Let’s not go through the list.” Robin stopped. “How did you know about that?”

“Mom told me. She was a little worried. I mean, it sounds like fear of intimacy issues to me. You know, ‘cause of her and dad.”

Robin’s heart sank. “You know, that’s the part that really sucks about you becoming a shrink.”

“I suppose.” Dean shrugged. “It could be worse. I could do the whole analysis thing.”

Robin flopped back onto the bed. “It doesn’t matter. Sometimes I wish I really was a man.”

“Why?”

“Even in our liberated times, Dean, men are usually very threatened by women who are smarter than them.”

Dean laughed. “It’s not just the men. Why do you think I play so dumb all the time?”

Robin looked at him. “You may have a point. But guys can still get away with it more easily than women can.”

“In some ways.” Dean’s voice suddenly turned sour. “I haven’t had much luck.”

“You, Don Juan?”

“Do you see me staying with anyone? Sure I mess around with a lot of girls. But they’re all dumb bunnies, and they make a lot of stupid demands. All they want is sex, and I need more than that.”

“No kidding.” Robin sighed. “Why can’t people understand that?”

Dean shrugged. “I don’t know. I wish I could tell you, Robby, but I figure, if it’s beyond you, it’s gonna be beyond me. Maybe you’ll just get lucky someday.”

“Maybe.” But Robin wasn’t holding out much hope.

“Hey, Robby, remember when Mom and Dad broke up, and you used to take care of me?”

Robin shivered. “Boy, do I.”

“I used to think then that I had the greatest, best damned big sister a kid could ever have. I still do.”

Robin sniffed and turned to her brother. “Deanie, you are easily the most incredible, frustrating, aggravating creature I have ever met. But I love you more than anybody on this earth!”

They met in the middle of the room. Dean’s large arms almost smothered Robin as they hugged each other. Robin couldn’t hold back her tears any longer, and Dean caught himself sniffing also. Downstairs came the sound of knocking and merry singing.

“Hey, Merry Christmas, Robby.”

“Merry Christmas, Deanie.” Robin pulled away and wiped her eyes. “We’d better get downstairs.”

“Yeah. Say, Elizabeth told me they give presents out on twelfth day. You think we can get together some neat surprises for then?”

“I think we could. Why don’t we talk about it later? They’re calling us now.”

Downstairs they found not only a small crowd of neighbors, but a fully cooked feast of chicken, roasted vegetables, soup, bread, apples, tarts and cakes waiting for them. Elizabeth was in shock.

“Where did all of this food come from?” Robin asked, aghast.

“W-well,” Master Chandler stammered, flummoxed himself. “I had asked Mistress Saunders to provide a dinner for us, so Elizabeth wouldn’t have to cook. That was my surprise.”

Dean laughed. “Looks like they surprised you.”

“Indeed.” Master Chandler laughed, also. “Well, good neighbors, we can’t eat all this ourselves. Will you please join us? Oh, dear. I hope there’s enough porter.”

“We made an extra keg last week.” Elizabeth couldn’t hide her smile as she shook her head yet again at Master Chandler. “Robin, could you help me?”

“Hey, I can get it.” Dean cut in. “Come on, Robin.”

They headed to the cool room while Elizabeth helped the neighbors set up the food and the hot spiced wine. The revelry lasted late into the night. It was close to dawn before the last of the guests departed.

People continued to visit for the following twelve days. Many of them were people Master Chandler had helped during the year, coming to return the charity they had received. The tributes flowed in. Most of them went right back out again with other needy people.

In spite of all the visitors, Dean and Robin each got a chance to visit the local marketplace separately. Elizabeth had already run her errands, long after conferring with Robin as far as funding went. On each of the twelve days, Elizabeth served a piece of fruit or some other sweetmeat to everyone. She also smiled with yet another secret, this time a happy one.

The big day, of course, was Twelfth Day. Again, the neighbors were expected. But that morning was reserved for Master Chandler and his new household. Elizabeth produced a magnificent breakfast for the occasion. After they had eaten, all hurried away to their respective rooms to gather together all the secrets they had been so carefully guarding. They returned to the best room minutes later, tense with happy anticipation.

Elizabeth displayed her gifts first.

“Robin said I could have some money, and I was able to get some linen, and wool.” She displayed the two shirts and the cloak. “Here, Dean, this one is for you, and this shirt is for you, Robin. And, Master Chandler, you may have your cloak on one condition.”

“What is that, my daughter?” Master Chandler’s eyes glowed.

“That you not give it away. Do you promise? You must have something to keep you warm, or you’ll catch your death.”

Master Chandler laughed. “I must promise then, I will not give it away.” He took the cloak gladly. “Now, I must present my gifts. Master Robin, behold, your first mold, and the tools to carve it with. I have the same for you, Master Dean.”

“Thanks,” replied Dean, although his smile was a little indifferent.

“Thank you, sir,” Robin replied. She understood what the tools meant in terms of Master Chandler’s regard for her abilities.

“And for Mistress Elizabeth, I have this.” Master Chandler flourished his prize. “I am afraid you will have to cook it yourself.”

“A pheasant!” Elizabeth glowed. “Oh, how wonderful! I don’t mind cooking it at all. It’s been so long since I’ve had any, and I do love it. Thank you, sir.”

“I guess it’s my turn,” Robin began awkwardly. “I really didn’t know what to get, so I did my best. Here, Dean, I got you this Shakespeare book, the folio.”

Dean burst into laughter. “You would. Thanks, Robin.”

“And, Elizabeth, please don’t get mad. I got a real good deal on it. I just hope it fits.” Robin presented the dress. “It’s just a work dress, but yours is getting a little worn.”

“Indeed, it is.” Elizabeth couldn’t help laughing to herself. However masculine Robin might be at times, the woman in her had won out and found the one thing Elizabeth had been hoping for. “If it doesn’t fit, I can fix it.”

“Good.” Robin flashed a sheepish grin. “And for you, Master Chandler, I got this. It was the best one I could find.”

Master Chandler took the bottle of wine and looked at it.

“I shall relish this,” he said, when he at last found the words.

“Hey, it’s my turn!” Dean burst in. “Look at this, Master Chandler. Isn’t it cool? You can stick it in your boot and have an extra for when you’re wandering around at night.”

It was a knife, clearly meant to be a weapon as opposed to the belt knives worn by nearly everyone and used for eating. Master Chandler accepted it chuckling.

“I got one for you, too, Robin.” Dean handed it to her.

“Thanks, Dean.” Robin laughed, mostly because Dean had blown it yet again. She put the knife in her boot just to placate him.

“And I got this for you, Elizabeth,” Dean continued, blissfully ignorant. “Why don’t you close your eyes?”

“As you wish.” And Elizabeth did.

Dean slid the chain and pendant over her head. “Now, look.”

Elizabeth opened her eyes and felt the chain with her hand. She looked down at the pendant in wonder. Suddenly, she jumped up and ran upstairs crying.

“What?” Dean was flabbergasted.

Robin sighed. “Dean, that cost a fortune, didn’t it?”

“Only ten pounds.”

Master Chandler laughed out loud. “An entire year’s salary, young man? Still, I’ve seen other boys do even more foolish things. And I must say, Elizabeth does deserve it.”

The dimmer switch in Dean’s brain slowly slid on. “Maybe I’d better go talk to her.”

“Maybe I’d better,” said Robin.

“Nope.” Dean held her back. “I did it. I’ll talk to her.”

“All right.” The sudden display of responsibility surprised Robin, but she decided not to comment.

Dean found Elizabeth in her room. She sat on the bed crying.

“I guess I went a little overboard.” Dean said.

“Oh, Dean, it’s beautiful!” Elizabeth sniffed. “It’s just far too rich for me.”

“No, it isn’t.” Dean sat down next to her and cradled her in his arms. “Even Master Chandler said you deserved it.”

“But…”

“No, buts. Remember that contract? You’re supposed to get an allowance. So I spent it for you.”

“Ten pounds?” Elizabeth gaped. “Oh, Dean, so much! And that was for after we’re married. And we’re not, and…” She buried her face in his shoulder, sobbing.

Dean sighed. “Elizabeth, did you have to bring that up?”

“Pray forgive me, Dean, but I must now. It’s more important than ever.”

“Why? I mean…” It hit Dean. “You’re not trying to tell me you’re…”

Elizabeth sniffed and nodded. “I am. I’m certain now.”

Dean groaned his favorite obscenity.

“I’m sorry, Dean.” Elizabeth looked at him fearfully.

“But you can’t be. I mean, we’ve been using that—” Dean swallowed. “We didn’t that one time, did we?”

Elizabeth ducked her head. “I forgot. It’s my fault.”

“It is not. I’m just as responsible for remembering.”

“How are we going to tell Robin?”

“Don’t even.” Dean got up and started pacing. “She’d have my butt in a sling so fast.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “We can’t hide it forever.”

“You’re not too far along, are you? We’ll just have to go home. It’s no sweat. We can get an abortion. Hell, I’ll even pay for it.”

“You mean kill it!” Elizabeth was horrified.

Dean continued pacing. “Elizabeth, will you get a hold of yourself? It’s no big deal.”

“It is so!”

“All right, maybe it is. But it’s the only sensible choice. For crying out loud, we can’t support a kid right now.”

Elizabeth scrambled to her feet. “If you can buy me a necklace, we most certainly can.”

“Yeah, here. But it’s a whole different story back home, and that’s where we’re staying.”

“Yes, Dean.” Elizabeth bowed her head.

Dean sighed. “Damn it, Elizabeth. Don’t go all subservient on me.”

“That is my place.”

Dean heaved an even greater huge sigh. “One of these days you’ll learn. Look, it’s going to be all right. I’ll figure something out. Okay? Are you going to trust me?”

She sank back onto the bed, weeping once again. “I always have.”

It took Dean a moment to realize what she was really afraid of. He plopped down next to her and bundled her into his arms.

“Look, I’m not going to abandon you,” he told her softly. “Whatever happens, we’re going to do this together. And I’m not going back home without you. Honest, Elizabeth. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me and I love you and it’s going to be all right. I don’t know how yet, but it will. I promise.”

Elizabeth sobbed even harder. “Thank you, Dean.”

Dean held her tightly and rocked her, wondering what on earth he’d gotten himself into.

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Cleaning Up Tips for the Holidays

cleaning up tipsLet’s be real. Cleaning up is the absolute worst part of cooking. And after a full-on holiday feast, the last thing you want to do is haul yourself up and wash a larger than normal pile of dishes, not to mention the icky, greasy pans.

The funny thing is, with all the holiday help tips out there, no one, but no one offers tips on how to clean up your kitchen after a big holiday meal or party. I suspect it’s because it is such a dreary chore that there really isn’t much that can be done to make it less so. But there are a few things you can do to make a little easier.

Cleaning up Tips

First, don’t make such a big mess in the first place. You can read my post here on how to do that. But the important part to remember is that if you don’t absolutely need that dish or pan, don’t use it! Clean as you go, too. If you’re waiting for the potatoes to boil, you can clean up the peelers and other dishes. There will be less to do later.

Make sure to de-glaze the roasting pan. That’s usually going to be your greasiest and ickiest. De-glazing is easy. You get the drippings and grease boiling, then add some broth, wine or other liquid, get it boiling again and as it does, you scrape all the stuck-on bits into the liquid and use it as a base for your gravy. If you’re not going to make gravy or some other sauce, either pour all that goo into a container and save it to make a sauce later, or feed it to the dog. Or, if you’re not going to make a gravy, squirt some dish soap into the pan and use that to boil and scrape everything up.

If someone else offers to help, accept. Now, I get that there are times when this isn’t feasible. But even if that surly relative is only asking to be polite, accept the help. Women have used clean up time for millennia as a chance to gossip about the rest of the relatives. You can, too.

Sometimes listening to a good comedy podcast or other show helps ease things a little. Sometimes the noise is just annoying.

Get all the plates scraped off as you stack them on the counter. Make sure any paper towels or other wrappers are in the trash, and any containers that you’re going to recycle are ready to be rinsed.

When you’re packing the leftovers, be sure you have the lid next to the container. I can’t tell you how many containers I’ve had to wash because I dumped the leftovers in, then couldn’t find a lid to fit.

Wipe down any counter or workspace that will serve as a landing area for clean dishes. You don’t want to go to all the trouble of washing something then have it pick up crumbs or globs of sauce dribbles. I like using a large towel over our worktable rather than the dish rack, which is always too small.

Wash the least dirty to the most dirty. In other words, if you wash your glassware first, it won’t pick up grease from the wash water and your suds will last longer. Nor will it pick up the tiny bits that were left on any plates and pans. Get everything loaded into the dishwasher that can go into it and don’t worry if you miss a fork or two. Those are easy to hand wash.

Let as many dishes air dry as you have room for. Your good glassware will probably need to be dried right away or it might get spots, and there may not be a lot of room in your kitchen to leave pans out. But whatever you can leave out, you may as well.

A nice glass of wine can help or it can increase the odds of something breaking.

Finally, once you get the plates scraped and the leftovers put away, you can come back to most of it in the morning. If any of your pans are crusted with something starchy, you may want to soak those in some cold water overnight. Greasy pans should get the soap treatment (see above) while they’re still hot. But unless you’re going to risk your drains by pouring the soapy grease down right away, along with lots of hot water, you’ll probably be better off wiping up the mess with some paper towels once they’re cold, and then washing them.

Hope this helps. And please, feel free to share any cleaning up tips you have. We could all use the help.

 

Chapter Sixteen

With Dean out of danger, Robin and Elizabeth were left with a little free time. Elizabeth found her place in Master Chandler’s kitchen, and set about putting it straight, grumbling all the while about the basically inept nature of men. Robin found herself in the shop, first watching Master Chandler at work, then helping out where she could.

“Master Robin, do you have a trade?” Master Chandler finally asked.

“As a tapster,” Robin replied. “My brother and I were running an inn before politics and a certain enemy forced us to leave the village.”

“You won’t find much of that work around here, I’m afraid,” Master Chandler said thoughtfully. “All the families that own inns have more than enough help.”

Robin sighed. “I’ll take whatever work I can find, then. I don’t intend to continue burdening you.”

Master Chandler laughed. “You’re no burden. I’m deeply in debt to Mistress Elizabeth for straightening out my kitchen. Many of my brothers seem to manage very well on their own. I don’t.” He sighed. “But enough of that. To continue, there really isn’t any work available. You might be able to get a laborer’s position, but those are very scarce.”

“I’m not adverse to learning something new,” Robin said.

“You’re a little old to apprentice. It’s been a long time since I’ve had one. I could do with the help, though. Hm. How do you feel about the candle trade?”

Robin smiled. “It’s as good as any. Better than most, I suspect.”

Master Chandler chuckled. “Who knows? I’ll take you on, then, and your brother, when he’s well enough. I dare say a man of his bulk can be quite useful for lifting things.” He breathed in deeply. “Just as long as Mistress Elizabeth stays. It’s been so long since I’ve had the smell of fresh bread coming from my kitchen.”

A week passed, then another. Dean remained bedridden, although it was mostly at Robin’s insistence. He was not a patient invalid, but he remained cheerful. He ran Elizabeth ragged with his demands. Robin was ready to strangle him. Elizabeth intervened, eventually convincing Robin that she (Elizabeth) was quite happy to do the running, as indeed she was.

Robin worked hard. Master Chandler was very gentle and patient in his instruction, but was also a demanding master. He expected nothing less than Robin’s best, and she was often very surprised to find she was capable of so much.

Elizabeth was equally fond of Master Chandler, but in an exasperated way. Master Chandler was an extremely charitable man. Beggars were frequent visitors, and none went away empty handed. Elizabeth quickly learned to make extra bread, cheese, soup, and ale to accommodate the hungry. Master Chandler never gave away more food than Robin, Elizabeth and Dean needed. But it was not unusual for him to skip a meal or two to make up for what he had given away.

It was this habit that exasperated Elizabeth the most. Master Chandler was already bone thin. His clothes were in tatters also. Yet the day after Elizabeth had mended his much-needed cloak, he came back without it. He had given it to a poor young man who had none. Master Chandler worked tirelessly all day. Then many evenings found him on the streets, visiting sick people and performing other good acts, or so Robin said. She went with him, to provide some defense against the many villains who came out after dark, as Master Chandler refused to carry a weapon.

One morning, toward the end of November, when the three had been with the candlemaker for almost three weeks, Elizabeth went upstairs to check on Dean. He was awake and waiting for her.

“At last!” he sighed. “Robin was just here, grumbling about what a baby I’ve been. Hell, she won’t let me out of bed.”

Elizabeth smiled. “You’re getting out this afternoon. Robin wants to change the bedding.”

“I know. My chamber pot’s full, and will you make sure there’s no one on the street before you dump it? I can’t believe the way you throw everything out of the window. You’re lucky there isn’t a Health Department around to bust you.”

Elizabeth just shrugged. It was the way one did things. But Dean never seemed to understand that.

“You seem bugged,” Dean observed.

Elizabeth shook her head. “Not really. I’m tired perhaps. I didn’t sleep last night.”

“A nightmare?”

“No. I just didn’t sleep.” Elizabeth hurried out of the room with the empty chamber pot. In the small yard just outside of the kitchen, she rinsed out the pot, another of Robin’s wishes. More weary than before, she climbed back up the stairs to Dean’s room.

“So what exciting things are going on?” Dean asked the moment she entered.

“Nothing, really.” Elizabeth busied herself tidying the room. “Master Chandler and Robin just got up. They were called away again last night. Robin said it was a sick neighbor.”

“There’s a lot of those around here.”

“About average, I expect. Anyway, Master Chandler is teaching her to dip candles. It should take most of the day. He’s so fussy.”

Dean chuckled. “No kidding. I hear he’s going to start in on me as soon as I’m up.”

Elizabeth smiled. “It’s a good trade. Master Chandler would be doing very well if he didn’t give everything away.” Taking a deep breath, she checked Dean’s bandage. The wound had scabbed over and looked strangely clean.

“Does that bug you?” Dean asked suddenly.

“It shouldn’t.” Elizabeth paused, then went back to retying the bandage. “It’s a great virtue to be charitable. I just fear for his health. He’s so busy thinking of everyone else, he forgets to take care of himself. I don’t know how he survived all those years alone.”

Dean chuckled.

“How are you feeling?” Elizabeth asked.

“Terrific. I’m just real bored, and…” Dean snickered.

“What?”

“I just realized it’s been one hell of a long time since we last made it.”

“Oh.” Elizabeth bit her lip. That was also what was bugging her. It had been a few weeks, and she was missing it worse than she’d thought possible. “I don’t know if you’re well enough yet. Robin said even the slightest strain could start you bleeding again, and I’m not going to ask her about it.”

“I know.” Dean sighed out loud this time. “It’s mostly because of her that I kind of want to right now. You said she’ll be busy all day. It’s going to be easy for her to catch us any other time.”

Elizabeth carefully sat down next to him. Dean’s hand reached up and stroked her cheek.

“I don’t want to be pushy,” he said. “If you really don’t want to, that’s okay.”

Elizabeth smiled ruefully. “I always want to, Dean.” She bent and kissed his mouth. “That, I’m afraid, is my biggest problem at the moment.”

Downstairs, Robin and Master Chandler bent to the tasks at hand, oblivious to the proceedings above them. They were so absorbed, they didn’t notice that Elizabeth took over an hour to come back to the kitchen. Master Chandler scraped the seams off of some molded candles, while Robin dipped wicks into the vat of wax.

It was slow, monotonous work. It had to be done very carefully, or the wax would not be even over the entire surface. Nonetheless, Robin found herself able to let her mind wander.

She was nervous about the night before. Some men of Cromwell’s army had come across the pair as they hurried to the house of one of Master Chandler’s flock so he could hear confessions. The soldiers were more than a little curious about what two honest citizens were doing on the streets at that time of night. Robin made up a long song and dance about how Master Chandler was her stepmother’s brother, and how her stepmother was quite ill and had begged for Robin to fetch her beloved brother that she might see him one last time. The four roundheads seemed less than convinced, but they let the pair go on their way. Robin was pretty sure they hadn’t followed.

Still, Master Chandler’s true profession was pretty dangerous. It was true that Catholics were no longer being hanged or burned for their faith. But they remained convenient scapegoats for any and all trouble, and with the current turmoil, there were troubles aplenty.

There was no point in trying to tell Master Chandler to stop risking his neck. His entire life was centered on serving the tiny group of Catholics in the surrounding neighborhood. What Robin couldn’t understand was why she was willing to take such a silly risk with him, and furthermore, endanger Dean and Elizabeth as well.

Of course, the time machine provided a nice escape route. But what if the three were separated? And could Robin leave Master Chandler to end his days in some filthy, wretched prison, however willingly he might endure it?

On the other hand, bringing Master Chandler forward in time would only complicate things far worse than they were already. After all, the original objective was to bring Elizabeth back and get her established on her own. Or was it? The more difficulty they had in establishing Elizabeth, the more Robin was forced to examine her own motives for taking the trip backwards in time.

She was certain Elizabeth’s welfare was at the bottom of it. The girl couldn’t function in the twenty-first century, or could she? Whether or not she could was irrelevant. She belonged in her own time, and that was that. Still, there was that nagging fear that Robin was taking full advantage of the situation to satisfy her own curiosity.

Perhaps she was, but what was wrong with that? For one thing, Dean could have died as a result of it. Even with the alcohol, the smartest thing to do would have been to go back home, wait for the wound to heal, then try again. But how to explain the wound to their mother?

Even supposing they could explain the wound, and Elizabeth, there was always the possibility that whatever batteries there were that ran the machine would run down, and they couldn’t return Elizabeth. The machine had to be driven by an unknown, at least in her time, type of power. The amount of power it took to transcend time had to be formidable. But what it was outstripped even Robin’s ability to guess.

“Careful, Master Robin,” Master Chandler’s voice shattered Robin’s thoughts. “You have to keep watching. I know it’s boring, but in time you will have the skill enough to let your thoughts wander. In the meantime, concentrate on slowly, carefully and evenly.”

“Yes, sir.”

Master Chandler chuckled. “Be ever watching. Do not let the day of the Lord catch you sleeping, or your master, either.”

Robin smiled. Master Chandler was easily the happiest, sweetest, most giving man she had ever met. That night she woke with a start, realizing that she had been dreaming about him. Robin sighed, then laughed it off. It was ridiculous. She was a man, and Master Chandler had no interest in men that way, or in women either. His whole life was dedicated to the service of God, and His people. Robin rolled over in her bed and went back to sleep.

The next day, shortly after lunch, Robin was checking out Dean’s cut, when she heard someone knocked at the front door. Elizabeth answered it. Less than a minute later her voice rose upstairs, shrill and angry.

“That’s absurd!” she cried. “We’ve no Papists here! We’re all good members of the Church of England.”

“Damn!” Robin hissed, her heart in her throat.

“Yeah, she has been awful touchy the past two days.” Dean sighed.

“You idiot, they probably want to search the place.”

“Uh, oh. Did you hide our stuff?”

“Damn, that too.” Robin dove under the bed for the sacks. “Where’s Master Chandler?”

“How would I know? You won’t let me out of bed.”

Robin ignored him and ran out of the room with the sacks. She bumped into Master Chandler in the hall.

“What’s the noise?” he asked.

“Sh! They’re searching for Papists. You’d better get your stuff together. I wonder if there’s a place we can hide it upstairs.”

Master Chandler chuckled. “Of course, my son. You’ve things to hide, too, eh? Well, come along. Elizabeth seems to be holding them at bay, but she can’t much longer.”

Robin followed the priest into his room, where he quickly gathered together his stole, crucifixes, books and the small shrine dedicated to the Blessed Mother.

“The candle, too!” Robin grabbed it and hurried after him out of the room and upstairs. “The wax is too warm. They’ll be sure to notice and wonder why you were burning a candle in the middle of the day.”

“Good thinking.” Master Chandler stopped at the head of the stairs and looked up. Above them was a board ceiling. Robin had never really noticed it. But it dawned on her that she had yet to see a ceiling that didn’t have rooms on top of it. The top floors in all of the buildings she’d seen all had just the roof between them and the sky. There was no access to this extra floor.

Master Chandler looked at her and chuckled. “There’s no way to get up there, is there? Well, that’s what I tell everyone when they ask. It used to be an apprentice’s loft that got sealed up many years ago, before I got here. Only I unsealed it for just this sort of emergency. That board, there, see it? It’s loose. If you’ll just give me a hand.”

“Never mind. I can get it more easily myself.” Robin pushed up the board easily. “Terrific. All they’ve got to do is touch that and we’re undone. I’ll just have to hold it down on top. You can hand everything up to me.”

Robin did take the precaution of taking the sack with the iPhone and time machine with her as she hoisted herself into the loft. Master Chandler chuckled as he handed up the sack with the money.

“Hiding from the tax collector, are you?” he said. “I would, too, if I had any to hide.”

“There’s not that much there,” Robin replied. “Well, maybe there is, but it won’t last forever.”

“Too true.”

“Get downstairs, quickly! I can hear them!”

Robin set the board in place, then sat down on it. After about ten minutes, she heard the voices coming up the stairs to the third floor.

“All this bloody work,” wheezed one voice loudly. “And for what? Nothing, I tell you. There’s no Papist here.”

“Master James, will you cease with your complaining?” said a second. “The sheriff said we were to check this house and we will. Those soldiers seemed damned certain those two on the street were priests, and this is where they said they came from.”

“That wench downstairs is not hiding anybody. I’ve never seen anyone so insulted in my life.”

“I wonder what’s up there?”

“Nothing. My cousin lived in this house before the candlemaker came. It’s an apprentice’s loft. My cousin had it sealed off to keep out rats.”

“It could have been unsealed.”

Robin held her breath and leaned on the board were it should have been nailed down. The jabs were ineffectual. The two men were probably fairly short and unable to put much pressure on the loose board.

“So much for that,” grumbled the second voice.

“See? I told you. Nothing. What an utter waste of time.”

“Come along.”

The two went off, the first complaining. Robin waited until Master Chandler called to her.

“They’re gone. It’s safe to come down.”

Robin cautiously lifted the board. Master Chandler smiled up at her.

“Whew!” she sighed as she slid down. “That’s not a very safe hiding place. What would you do if someone came searching when you weren’t here?”

Master Chandler thought it over. Robin got the feeling it was the first time he had ever considered the possibility.

He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Well, I do know a way to fix that,” Robin said. “Mind if I do it this afternoon?”

“Are you that concerned over your fortune?” Master Chandler asked with an amused grin.

Robin grimaced. “Not really. I’m more concerned about your neck, and Dean and Elizabeth’s also, and, if you don’t mind, mine. If you get caught, we’re in for it, too.”

“Perhaps you are right.” Master Chandler sighed. “Have at it, then.”

Robin’s device was fairly ingenious. It involved poking one of the knots in the wood up and out of the board, releasing the spring on top holding the board down. The knot was jammed in very tightly and required the use of an innocent looking dowel to poke it out. Robin showed both Master Chandler and Elizabeth how to work the device in case of emergency, and where she was keeping the dowel in her room. Master Chandler had explained to Elizabeth he had helped Robin hide their cache of money, but had not told her what he had hidden. Elizabeth suspected nothing, and remained peeved and out of temper for the rest of the day.

Her temper did not improve over the next couple weeks, and when she awoke one morning before sunrise feeling nauseous yet again, she sighed. It was more a nuisance than anything else, but it was the third day in a row. Elizabeth dressed in the dark and went downstairs.

There, a candle burned in the kitchen, a sure sign that Master Chandler had been called away during the night. Elizabeth thought it very wasteful, but if anyone could afford to waste candles, Master Chandler could. She went to the buttery, hoping to find some of the crusts from the evening before still there.

They were. Elizabeth nibbled on one gratefully. She wondered at the instinct that told her to seek out food when it was her stomach that was upset.

At that moment, the back door swung open and Master Chandler and Robin scurried in on a blast of cold outside air.

“So where have you been now?” Elizabeth asked.

“Sick neighbor,” replied Robin. “Whew! It’s cold out there. What are you doing up so early? It’s not even five yet.”

“I couldn’t sleep,” Elizabeth said. “I’d better stoke up the fire. You two look frozen.”

“Not really,” said Master Chandler cheerfully. “I think I shall just hurry to bed. But thank you for your kindness.”

He scurried away upstairs as Elizabeth shrugged. Robin yawned.

“I probably should, too,” she grumbled and stretched. “Oh, before I do, Elizabeth, you got any of those clean rags around? I’ve got a feeling one of those days is coming up.”

“So soon? Oh no, it must be. It’s the ides of December.”

“That we are.” Robin looked at her quizzically. “Is something wrong? You don’t forget things like that.”

“No, I don’t. It must have been Dean’s injury. I’ve been so busy worrying about him, I haven’t thought of much else.”

Robin laughed. “You worry too much about him. He’s doing fine. He’s been lifting stuff without signs of strain. The wound has healed over. He doesn’t need to be spoiled.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that, Robin.” A fierce glint flickered in Elizabeth’s eyes. “One thing I do very well is manage men.”

Robin rolled her eyes skyward. “Managing people is not the idea. At least not in my time. I’d hate to be a woman nowadays. I’m not kow-towing to some stupid jerk just because he’s a male. If a guy thinks he’s better or smarter than me, he’d better damn well prove it. Well, goodnight.”

Robin yawned again as she swaggered upstairs. Elizabeth rolled her eyes skyward, then returned to her crust. She paused. Robin’s “days” had always followed Elizabeth’s within hours. Robin wasn’t early, either.

Elizabeth swallowed her crust uneasily. She’d been feeling nauseous for three days, and only first thing in the morning. Then there was that strange instinct. Maybe she was just upset. She had been thrown off when Dean had first awakened her, and Robin had had the same problem when they first returned to England. It seemed plausible, but deep inside, Elizabeth knew the truth.

Chapter Fifteen

The journey to London was relatively uneventful, even though bad weather delayed the three for a couple days. Exactly one week after their departure from Charing Vale, Robin, Dean and Elizabeth found themselves facing the northern edge of the City of London. It was almost dark as they crossed the city limits.

“Well, here we are,” said Robin without enthusiasm.

“It sure smells,” Dean observed.

Elizabeth shrugged. The dense collection of houses, all of them tall and hanging over the street, left the threesome feeling rather overwhelmed. People crowded the streets, as well as the odd horseman or two. The shadows were deep, and the gathering dusk made them worse.

“I suppose we should try to find out where we are,” said Robin.

“Don’t you know?” asked Dean.

“Dean, the last time we were in London, it was a hell of a lot more modern, and most of the streets were actually marked, which is more than you can say for these streets.”

“So what do we do?”

“Find an inn, which we’d better do pretty quickly.” Robin looked around. “From what I remember, these streets at night aren’t exactly safe.”

“Can’t be that bad,” said Dean.

“They make South L.A. look like a picnic ground.”

Dean nodded. “Maybe we’d better find an inn.”

Taking a deep breath, Robin pushed the handcart before them into a gloomy side-street. Several houses had signs above the doors, but they were all tradesmen’s lodgings. As the dark settled, the street emptied of people and Robin was concerned.

“What’s this one?” Dean asked, looking at easily the thirtieth sign they’d seen.

“He makes candles.” Elizabeth sighed.

“That he does,” sneered a rough voice. “You need any?”

“No, we’re looking for an inn.” Dean turned to face a group of five very dirty, nasty looking men.

At that moment, the moon broke through the clouds. Robin saw something flash in the dim light.

“Dean, look out!” she screamed.

Swearing, Dean leaped back, just in time. The five men pounced. Robin pushed the handcart into them, as Dean drew his sword. But the five men almost overwhelmed them. One of them tried to take Elizabeth, but she struggled, kicking, scratching and biting for all she was worth. Robin kicked one man, then suddenly found herself facing off two others. Yelling, she charged them, sword out and thrusting.

The men turned tail, as suddenly as they had attacked. Breathing heavily, Robin looked around. Elizabeth picked herself up out of the muck, and wiped her hands off on her dress. Dean leaned against the candle-maker’s door, gasping and holding his right side.

“Sure scared them, didn’t we?” he remarked with strained cheerfulness.

“Dean, are you alright?” Robin went over to him.

“Just scratched, I think,” he replied. “Sure hurts like hell.”

His head wove for a moment, then, with a groan, he slumped forward into Robin’s arms.

“Dean!” Elizabeth screamed.

Robin struggled to stay upright under her brother’s considerable mass.

“Dean,” she whispered frantically. “Dean, please, no joking, this isn’t funny.”

“Is he dead?” Elizabeth asked, equally horrified.

Robin glared at her. “Damn it, help me, will you?”

“Hullo there!” called a voice at the end of the street. “Is there a problem?”

A man in his early forties ran up, accompanied by a boy in his early teens. Both were wrapped in long black flowing capes.

“It’s my brother,” Robin sniffed. “We were attacked. He’s been hurt.”

“He couldn’t have found a better place for it,” said the man. He picked up one of Dean’s arms and slid under it. “This here is my house. Come, Matthew, you help the lady get the handcart in the house, then show her to the front bedroom.”

“But, sir…” the boy began nervously.

“It wouldn’t be very Christian to leave the poor fellow here,” the man replied. “Remember the parable of The Good Samaritan.”

Together, the man and Robin struggled, dragging Dean’s unconscious form upstairs, and put him on a bed. The man lit a large candle and brought it to the bedside. Robin pulled away Dean’s shirt where he’d been holding his side, and swore. The cut was only about three inches long, but it oozed blood generously. Robin guessed it was fairly deep. At least it wasn’t spurting. She tore away some of Dean’s shirt and pressed it to the wound. Elizabeth entered.

“He’s still with us,” Robin told her.

“He’ll need bandages,” she said softly.

“Yeah, boil them first, in clean water.”

“But why?”

“Just do it, damn it!” Robin snapped.

“Come, my child,” said their host softly. He placed his hand around Elizabeth’s shoulders and led her out of the room. “There’s water and a fire in the kitchen. We’ll do as the master asks. I am Master Chandler.”

As soon as she was sure they were gone, Robin allowed herself to break down a little.

“Deanie, you big dope,” she sniffed, blinking back the tears. “Mom’s gonna kill me when she finds out I let something happen to you. You dumb cluck.”

Dean moaned.

“You’re gonna be okay. I’m right here. I’m gonna take care of you, just like when we were kids, okay? Come on, Deanie, you big doofus, don’t die on me, please?”

Someone approached. Robin dried her tears. Master Chandler walked into the room.

“Master Robin,” he said in his soft gentle voice. “I am only moderately knowledgeable about the healing arts. Perhaps if I sent for a surgeon.”

“He wouldn’t be able to do any more than I can,” Robin replied. She lifted the bandage. “Damn, he’s still bleeding. He should probably have stitches.”

“A surgeon could do that.”

“No!” Robin’s vehemence surprised her. She ducked her head, ashamed. “No, please don’t. It’ll cost too much, and I don’t trust surgeons.”

“Perhaps you are right.”

“Master Chandler, you’ve been extremely kind. I’m sorry I’ve been so rude.”

“It’s perfectly understandable. You are forgiven, my child.”

Elizabeth returned with a bowl full of dripping cloths.

“Here are the bandages,” she said.

“Are they wrung out?” Robin asked.

“No.”

“Why don’t you do that, then? We’ll need some of them to dry, but they must stay clean.”

“I’ve a rack we can use,” said Master Chandler, leaving the room.

Elizabeth listlessly took the bowl to the window, and wrung out a cloth over the street.

“Here, give me that,” Robin said. “Maybe the hot water will help cauterize the wound.”

Elizabeth glared at Robin as she snatched a cloth from the bowl. Robin sniffed.

“Oh, Elizabeth, I’m sorry. I’m so worried about him. I know you are, too. But damn it, I’m responsible for him.”

“I know.” Elizabeth blinked back tears.

“Oh, shavings. Anything happens, and you’re the first one we forget about. That’s not fair. I’m sorry.”

Elizabeth sadly shook her head. “Robin, I know you haven’t been yelling at me.”

“I— if you’ve got that cloth wrung out, I’m not that good at tying bandages. You think you could show me?”

Elizabeth nodded. “I’ll need help, anyway. It has to go under him, and I don’t think I can lift him.”

Robin smiled and nodded. It was Elizabeth’s idea to use three cloths for the bandage. One to soak up the blood, and whatever else the wound would give up, another cloth to hold that one in place, and the third, the part that actually went underneath Dean, to tie it all together.

“This way we won’t have to lift him all the time,” Elizabeth explained.

“You’ve certainly got a head on your shoulders,” Robin agreed.

The lifting process proved to be difficult. Dean was very heavy, and Robin was afraid to disturb the wound. But she managed it. Elizabeth’s hands slipped quickly under the gap left, smoothing as she went.

While they worked on the bandage, Master Chandler slipped in with the rack, and their luggage, minus the handcart. The rack was a round one. Its legs were covered with hardened wax, but the bars had been scraped clean. Robin helped Elizabeth spread out the remaining cloths on the rack as Master Chandler left the room.

“You see, Elizabeth,” Robin explained as they worked. “It’s not the loss of blood that’s putting Dean in so much danger. Well, it is still very dangerous, but, do you remember what I told you about germs?”

“Yes, a little. But I didn’t understand.”

“Okay. You know how moss and lichens in the forests grow on trees. Eventually, they kill the tree. Well, germs are sort of like that, except they don’t always kill you, and they’re so small, you can’t see them.”

“Then how do you know they’re there?”

“You’ve seen pieces of glass that make things look larger, haven’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Well, using special glasses like that, that are very strong, somebody found out, or will, about germs. Anyway, boiling things kills these germs. If they get into Dean, they could very easily kill him, even more easily than the loss of blood.”

Elizabeth frowned as she struggled to understand. “And boiling the bandages will stop them?”

“Well, there are other things, but we don’t have them. What I wouldn’t do for a bottle of rubbing alcohol right now.”

“Rub…” Elizabeth stumbled over the word. “I wonder. Dean has a strange flask in his bag, and there are strange words on it. I’m afraid I can’t read very well, but it does seem like it could be…”

“Rubbing alcohol?” Robin dove for the bags. “Where did that overgrown idiot get the brains to pack that? Hell, I didn’t even think of it.” Elizabeth shrugged, as Robin pulled the clear plastic bottle from underneath the iPhone. “That’s the stuff, all right. Shavings. We’re going to have to untie those bandages. It’s just as well. We’ve got to keep them changed, anyhow. Don’t say anything about this, okay?”

“Of course not.”

“You’re right. You’d know better than any of us to keep your mouth shut. I’m sorry, Elizabeth.”

“It’s all right.” Elizabeth still felt hurt at being shut out by Robin’s concern, but she couldn’t help smiling at Robin’s awkward attempts to make up for it.

Robin untied the bandage. The first cloth, she discarded and replaced with one of the drying cloths. This last cloth, she poured the alcohol onto first. As Robin applied the cloth, Dean stirred and moaned.

“It’s hurting him!” gasped Elizabeth.

“It does sting like hell.” Robin watched her brother closely. “But it’s a good kind of hurt. You watch. He’ll be better for it.” She tied the cloths closed over the wound, and felt Dean’s forehead. “Damn. He’s feverish. We’d better get some water and a compress. If we can get him to wake up a little, we’ll have to start pushing fluids so he doesn’t dehydrate. In the meantime, we’ll let him rest. He needs that the most now.”

“Perhaps we should bleed him.”

Robin shook her head. “He’s already lost too much blood.”

“But that’s what’s done for a fever.”

“And how effective is it? Not too, I’m sure.” Robin realized she’d rolled her eyes and, embarrassed, shook her head again. “Okay, it probably works often enough to keep trying it, but it’s not a good idea.”

Elizabeth nodded sadly.

“Elizabeth, it’s not your fault.” Robin hurried over to her and took her hands. “Your people just don’t know these things. It’s going to be another two and a half centuries before medical science really begins to get on its feet. It takes time, Elizabeth.”

Elizabeth nodded again. “It seems so awkward. I like my life here. Things are so frightening in your world, and so complicated. Is that automatically better?”

“I don’t know, Elizabeth,” Robin sighed. “You’re not the first to wonder that. Sometimes I do, too. Things have a direction here that my time just doesn’t have. Sometimes I really wonder if running water and flush toilets are worth it.” Dean stirred. Robin sat down next to him and took his hand. “I know medicine is. If we were at a hospital now, we wouldn’t have to worry that much. The dumb lunkhead. I know I shouldn’t call him that. He really is pretty smart. He just never had to use it. He was so cute as a kid. He won a beautiful baby contest when he was sixteen months. I was jealous for a week. Well, I was only nine. Then when he was three, he used to go out in the yard and pick flowers. And he always made sure he had a special bunch for everybody. He’d come waddling in, covered with dirt, and he’d say, ‘A bunch for Mommy, a bunch for Daddy, a bunch for Robby.’  He always called me Robby, cause he couldn’t say Robin. He did that until he was almost four. Then he started it up again when he was six. That’s when our folks got divorced. Mom went over and over it with him. But he was just too young to understand. It scared the hell out of him. I think that’s why he’s not as close as I am to our dad.” Robin looked at Elizabeth. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”

“No.” Elizabeth shrugged and smiled. “But it doesn’t matter. I understand some. A child picking flowers is nothing mysterious. You were close to your brother as a child.”

“In some ways. I was always taking care of him. I resented it sometimes. He was always tagging along after me, and all my girlfriends, what few I had, thought it was terrific because he was so cute. Then when he turned twelve, he rebelled. All of a sudden, he didn’t want to have a thing to do with girls, me included. Come to think of it, he didn’t want to admit he had a family until he was seventeen. Of course by then I was already out of college and on my own working, so it didn’t bother me any.”

“It seems strange to be so close to one’s family,” Elizabeth said. “My brothers barely knew me.”

“How many kids did you have in your family?”

“Seven besides me. I had five brothers and two sisters. That’s not counting the ones that were stillborn, and the three that died before they were five. The others were all alive when I left. I was the oldest. I had to run the house and raise the others when my mother died.”

“And now you’re gone. It’s funny. We don’t think of life being so tenuous in our time, and yet it is.” Robin shrugged. “I’ll go ahead and watch first tonight. I’ll wake you when I’m tired.”

“If you wish,” Elizabeth replied.

Robin looked at her. She seemed so sad, but willing to do whatever Robin asked. Robin felt guilty.

“I think I will go down and get some water for him first,” she said suddenly and left.

While she was gone, Elizabeth picked up Dean’s hand and held it to her cheek. It was so warm. But Robin knew what she was doing. Elizabeth kissed Dean’s sleeping mouth. It did seem strange to be so close to someone. She kissed him one more time, then Robin returned.

It was a long night. Robin watched anxiously. She thought often of the time machine in the sack that she’d stashed under Dean’s bed. Dean needed antibiotics. He needed clean sutures. But then Robin would remember the terrible crushing sensation as the machine worked. As dangerous as Dean’s current condition was, Robin felt fairly certain that the trip ahead through time would kill him.

About four o’clock in the morning, Elizabeth insisted on taking a turn. Dean remained feverish throughout the next day and into the next night, but at least his belly remained flat and fairly soft. Robin took that as a sign that his colon hadn’t gotten punctured by the sword. But there was still that fever. Robin fretted. Dean couldn’t get any fluids into his system while he was unconscious. The few times he was awake, he was delirious.

“Come on, Deanie, just a little sip.” Robin held the tankard to his lips. It was around midnight of the second night. “For me.”

“Mom. I want Mommy,” he mumbled and tossed his head.

“Mom’s not here, Deanie. It’s Robby. Please take a little drink.”

“I want Kool-Aid.”

“Pretend it’s Kool-Aid. It’s grape Kool-Aid. You love grape.”

Dean took a sip, then another.

“That’s a good boy. Try another.”

Dean sipped again. “Where’s Daddy?”

“He’s working, Dean.”

“Why is he going away? Mommy says he’s not going to live with us anymore.”

Robin blinked back her tears. Why, of all the rotten times in their lives, did he have to bring back that one?

“That doesn’t mean we won’t see him,” she said, just as she had before. “We’ll see him lots of times. Mommy and Daddy just think it would be better for all of us if they lived apart.”

“I don’t think so.”

“I don’t either, but they know better than we do, okay?” Robin hadn’t been convinced then and was surprised to find that she still wasn’t. She reminded herself that she hadn’t been in her parents’ position, and so had no right to judge.

“Robby, are you going away, too?”

“No, Deanie. I’m right here. I’m not going to leave you. You take another drink and go to sleep.”

Robin did leave for a few minutes as soon as Dean was fast asleep again. She needed to use the chamber pot and refill the tankard. Dean seemed even warmer, if that were possible. At least the bleeding had stopped, and the wound showed no signs of infection.

When she returned to the door of the room, she stopped. She heard whispering, but it wasn’t in English. She looked inside. Master Chandler was kneeling by the bed. In the dim candlelight, he traced something on Dean’s forehead. She watched him continue whispering for a few minutes longer. Finally, he made the sign of the cross on himself. It was then that Robin noticed the purple satin stole around the man’s neck. She smiled as she realized what he’d been doing.

Master Chandler removed the stole, kissed it, then gathered together the little book, crucifix and tiny pot that he had been using. He turned, then froze as he saw Robin. She was surprised by his reaction, then she remembered.

“No, don’t be frightened,” she said. “Trust me. I won’t turn you in. I’m not like the others.”

“Are you one of us?” Master Chandler asked.

“No. I’m just better educated, and a hell of a lot more tolerant.”

“Pray forgive me.” Master Chandler nodded toward Dean. “The sacrament is not usually administered to those not of the faith, but Saint James admonishes us to pour healing oil on the sick.”

Robin smiled. “I don’t mind. At this point, I’ll take any help I can get.”

“Your faith is like that of the Good Centurion.” Master Chandler smiled. “I shall return to my chamber. God grant you a good night.”

Robin slipped into her place next to the bed. “Master Chandler, thank you, for everything. I know how dangerous it is for you to take us in like this. In fact, I would keep your secret from Elizabeth. She isn’t as tolerant as I am. And if Dean recovers, I’d keep it from him as well. He wouldn’t turn you in, but he doesn’t always watch what he says and he might give you away accidentally.”

“Thank you for warning me. These are dangerous times, and not only for those of my faith, I suspect, but for all England. Still, we are a church under persecution. I must be more cautious if I am to continue serving my people.”

This last was muttered as Master Chandler left the room, and it seemed as if he were warning himself more than anybody.

The next morning, Elizabeth entered the room somewhat irritated. Robin had failed to wake her yet again. But Elizabeth’s heart melted when she saw Robin fast asleep at the foot of the bed.

The morning sunlight streamed in through the window and onto Dean. His color looked a lot better, and he seemed to be breathing more easily. Elizabeth picked up his hand and held it to her cheek. It was cool to the touch, though not with that awful coldness. Her hand stroked his cheek, then lay on his forehead. The fever had broken. Almost in tears, Elizabeth bent and kissed his lips. He returned it. She pulled away as his eyelids fluttered open.

“You didn’t have to stop,” he said weakly.

“Oh, Dean!” Elizabeth whispered. She sat on the floor next to him. “How do you feel?”

“I don’t know. Weak, kinda tired. My side is sore. Geez, did I have one hell of a nightmare.”

“You’ve been hurt badly. We feared for your life.”

“Oh. Where’s Robin?”

“What the hell’s going on?” asked a sleepy voice from the foot of the bed. Robin shook the last of the sleep away, then bounced to her feet. “Dean?”

“Yeah. You okay?”

“Fine. You sound normal. Do you know where you are?”

“Uh, London, sixteen something or other.”

Robin felt his forehead. “I’ll be damned. The fever’s broken.”

Dean coughed weakly. “Have I been sick?”

“Yeah.” Robin grabbed the tankard and turned away. She tried not to choke over her words. “You were delirious a couple times. I’d better get you some water. You’re probably a little dehydrated.”

She hurried out before her joy could betray her.

Pauline Baird Jones Explains How a Duet Came to Be

Pauline Baird Jones has an unusual offer for us today: science fiction romance. Hers is one of two stories published as a duet with her friend Genie Davis. If you’ve ever wondered how an author comes up with ideas, well, this is an interesting twist on the process. You can find out more about Pauline here.

Like many of my ideas, Open With Care began with Genie, the other author in our duet, and I at lunch, talking.

“Why haven’t we written something together?” One of us asked. I don’t remember which one. It was a question because we’d been friends (online first and after some years, some face-to– face meetings) for a long time. So then and there, we decided to write “something” together.

Soon.

By the end of the year.

We did some kicking around of idea via Facebook Messenger and decided our “duet” would have these elements:
1. Wyoming
2. In the science fiction romance genre.
3. Holiday (Christmas)
4. Be triggered by an unusual gift.

So separately, we took these elements and started writing. Because you have to write holiday stories ahead of the holidays, I found myself working
on my story, “Up on the Rooftop,” in August. Luckily, I was also in Wyoming, but that didn’t help as much as you’d think it would. Because it was August.

My story idea was further refined by a couple of personal triggers:
1. That spring I was at the Romantic Times Convention in Las Vegas and involved in the Intergalactic Bar & Grille party. We decorated with blow up, green aliens.
2. My real life experience with aging parents.

How I brought all of these elements together into a single short story, well, frankly, it puzzles me, too. Apparently, I poured them into my brain, turned on the brain blender, and out came a quirky tale of aliens on the rooftop, Men in Black in the yard, and a long shot chance to rekindle an old romance.

Genie’s story is quintessentially hers, too. It is evocative, a little dark, but ultimately a hopeful story about love and the power of Christmas. Hers has aliens, too, but not the little green men variety.

The Stories:

Gini knew Christmas in Wyoming would be challenging as she headed
over the frozen crick and through the woods to the family cabin. The lights
are going out in her mom’s attic, the guy who broke her heart is on the
porch…and there are aliens on the roof.
According to her mom, it’s going to be the best Christmas ever.
And then dive into a mesmerizing tale of interstellar time travel and
romance!

Jane MacKenzie, visiting her grandfather’s abandoned ranch,
discovers something in the snow. When she opens the ribbon-wrapped
box, it mysteriously returns Sam Harrington, who “disappeared” in an  1885
blizzard.
There’s nothing alien in this enduring tale of holiday homecomings and
the hope of a love that lasts a lifetime.

You can buy Open With Care at BarnesandNoble, Google Play, Kobo, Amazon, and iTunes, or just go to the link for Open With Care.

Chapter Fourteen

Robin and Edward arrived in the outskirts of Charing Vale late in the afternoon as the sun was just beginning to set. Robin had them hide until full darkness could cover their entry into the village. The day was bitter cold, and the night even colder. Edward was anxious, once the sun set, to hurry to her home. But Robin held her back.

“Too many people are abroad yet,” she said. “Look at how many houses there are lit up by candles.”

They waited three more hours. The night grew colder around them. Finally, Robin decided it was safe. Edward led them through the dark streets to her father’s house. The door was unbolted. Edward admitted Robin and shut the door silently.

“Wait here,” Edward whispered. “I’ll go fetch my parents.”

“Who’s there?” a voice coming from the stairs hissed.

“Father?” Edward asked.

“Bess, is that you?” answered the voice.

“Yes, sir.”

“Who’s with you?”

“Master Robin, Father.”

“She’s home!” a woman’s voice called out. “Put away that pike, Matthew!”

The light of a small candle appeared at the top of the stairs. It was carried by a large woman in a flowing gown, her hair loose and flying about her night cap. She hurried down the stairs, followed by her husband, who was similarly dressed.

“Oh, Bess, at last,” the woman crooned. She found another candle in the best room chest and lit it.

“Bess?” Robin asked Edward.

“It’s my real name,” Edward replied.

Her mother turned to Robin. “Oh, Master Robin, I want to thank you so much for bringing my child back. I’m sure you know why she couldn’t stay.”

“I do, Mistress.”

“It’s such a blessing it was you who brought her,” Mistress Skippington continued. “And that you arrived now, when you’re needed so badly.”

“What’s wrong?” Robin’s heart stopped.

“Today, your brother and cousin were arrested for witchcraft.”

“What?” Robin let loose a short string of obscenities, then turned on Mistress Skippington. “What did that idiot brother of mine do now?”

“We know them to be innocent,” Master Skippington said. “It’s more of Master Blount’s evil. He simply took advantage of a most unfortunate accident that resulted in some most peculiar actions by your brother.”

“But what happened?” Robin demanded.

“Master Fletcher’s youngest son somehow contrived to fall into the ocean this morning, near that part of the beach closest to the inn.” Master Skippington took a deep breath. “Your brother realized that to fetch a boat to rescue him would take far too long, so he dove into the waves and swam after the boy. As if that wasn’t peculiar enough, he remained in the water with the child for a full five minutes before returning to the beach.”

Robin knew exactly what had happened. She hadn’t been raised on a beach for nothing.

“They just floated in one place for five minutes,” Mistress Skippington cried. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Surely you’ve seen people swim before,” Robin said.

“Of course,” replied Mistress Skippington. “But staying in one place like that?”

Robin groaned. “It’s simple once you know how.”

“But why?” Mistress Skippington pressed. “It was frightfully cold out there.”

“He was probably tired and catching his breath before trying to swim in,” Robin explained, although she doubted that was the real answer. The truth would only frighten the others more. She hoped Dean had kept his mouth shut about that.

“That makes sense.” Master Skippington nodded. “The trouble is that while most of the townspeople believe they are innocent, they were frightened, and Master Blount surely has paid for enough witnesses to guarantee a hanging tomorrow.”

“I don’t doubt it.” Robin sighed. “Well, that settles it, we’re leaving town. We were planning on it anyway. I sure as hell wasn’t going to stay in the army.”

“And why not?” asked Master Skippington.

Edward giggled. Robin glared at her.

“Somebody has to take care of my dumb brother,” Robin said quickly. Edward giggled again. Robin turned on her. “You, come here for a second.”

Edward obeyed. Robin pushed her over into a corner, then checked to see that her parents couldn’t overhear.

“Don’t you dare say anything about me,” Robin said with quiet firmness. “If I’m leaving, I’ve got to stay in disguise. Besides, you know anyone else who can get those two out of wherever they are?”

“But they all know you’re quick witted,” Edward said.

“They know I’m quick witted as a man. Everything changes once they find out I’m a woman. Remember, Samuel wouldn’t listen to me after he found out.”

“And you’re smarter than he is. All right, I won’t say anything. You’re one lucky woman, you know that. I envy you.”

“Thanks.” Robin paused, then took the small purse they’d taken from the peddler and opened it. “Here’s your share of the booty.” She glanced over her shoulders to make sure Edward’s parents couldn’t see. She removed half of the coins and pressed them into Edward’s hand. “You earned it like a man, you keep it like one.”

Edward sniffed and embraced Robin.

“All right,” said Robin in her normal voice as she pulled away. “Do you know where Dean and Elizabeth are being held?”

“In the town gaol, next to the church,” said Master Skippington.

“That should be fairly easy to break them out of.” Robin thought. “Who’s guarding them?”

“No one,” Master Skippington said. “They’re locked in. There isn’t a locksmith in the town, and the nearest one wouldn’t dream of crossing Master Blount.”

“I don’t think we’ll need a locksmith. I’d better go get some things from the inn first. I do want to thank you for your kindness. I’ll be off now.” Robin turned for the door.

“Wait!” said Master Skippington. “I’ll go with you. I can help you carry what you need from the inn.”

“If I can’t carry it, I can’t take it,” said Robin.

“But your brother can. I’ll take his place until you are able to liberate him.”

Robin sighed. “Thank you, sir. Your help will be much appreciated.”

Master Skippington disappeared, then came back a few minutes later, fully dressed. Robin slipped out of the house with him following. As she approached the inn, she saw a dim light glowing in one of the upstairs windows. Master Skippington gasped.

“Ghosts?” he asked.

“Hardly,” Robin replied. “I’ve got a feeling someone thinks there’s more money in there than we’ve let on.” She pulled her pistol from her sash. “Come on. But be as silent as possible. We’ll want to surprise him.”

With Robin in the lead, the two stalked silently up to the inn. The street door was half open. Robin slid through without a sound, Master Skippington did likewise. Footsteps above approached the stairs. Robin scuttled underneath the stairs, with Master Skippington on her heels.

Though the intruder tried to move quietly, the stairs creaked softly as he came down. He turned into the best room and Robin recognized him: Master Neddrick. He carried a small candle with him, and he went straight to the chest and rifled through its contents. Robin turned to him and aimed.

“Evening, Master Neddrick,” she said.

Stunned, the tall man whirled around.

“I assure you,” Robin continued. “You are well within accurate range of this pistol. It’s amazing what one picks up in the army, isn’t it? Master Skippington, would you kindly tie and gag the gentleman? Isn’t it a funny coincidence that you show up, Master Neddrick, just as another manufactured witchcraft charge was brought against my brother and cousin?”

“You know this man?” Master Skippington asked, tying Neddrick’s wrists.

“We’ve run into him before,” replied Robin. “I don’t know what he’s got against us, except that he wants my cousin for some purpose. Odd how he just happened to have the ear of someone else who wanted to hang us for witchcraft. I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t behind this charge and my conscription into the army. It makes sense. Get rid of the brains of the family, and then move in on the others. It had to be you, Master Neddrick. Master Blount just isn’t that smart, or that subtle.”

“Indeed not,” agreed Master Skippington.

Donald Long glared furiously at Robin, at a complete loss for words. It was impossible. If the information he’d gotten in London was correct – and there was no reason to doubt it – the Parkers and Elizabeth would be in London in a week or so. Perhaps he would catch them on the road. But, no. They’d recognized him in London. There had to be some way to get to Elizabeth. The DNA hadn’t lied. Or had it?

Skippington applied the gag with added viciousness. They seated Master Neddrick next to the wall so his feet could be bound. Robin went through his pockets, and only found a nasty looking knife. A quiet groan startled her.

“What?” She turned.

In the corner, Pastor Layton lay crumpled in a heap, and was slowly coming to.

“Oh, no!” Robin scurried over to him. “What happened to you?”

“Master Robin?” asked the pastor weakly.

“Yes, it’s me.” She gently turned him onto his back.

“Praise be to the Lord, you’ve returned. Have you heard?”

“Yes. That’s why I’m here.”

“It’s why I came. I came after dark, so I shouldn’t be found out. I wanted to fetch some blankets for them, and some food. I came in, and that’s the last thing I remember.”

Robin waved the candle in front of his eyes. They weren’t dilated.

“You’ve been hit on the head,” she said. “You should be okay. But you should go straight home and stay in bed for several days, at least.”

He struggled to a sitting position. “I can’t do that.”

“You could die if you don’t.” Robin glanced around. “Master Skippington, will you help the pastor home?”

“Wait!” Master Layton cried out. “Master Robin, don’t you understand? If there is to be any chance of them escaping conviction, I must present myself at the trial tomorrow and give evidence.”

“There’s not going to be a trial,” said Robin curtly. “We’re leaving permanently. I didn’t exactly get an honorable discharge.”

“But the inn…”

Robin sighed as she looked around the best room. “Boy, is Samuel going to be mad. Wait. Pastor, will you see to it that the deed is signed over to Samuel Shepwell when he returns? It’s here in this chest.” Robin ran over and got the piece of paper, plus some others. “Here it is. And here are Master Miller’s notes on how to brew the porter, and where to buy supplies.”

Pastor Layton smiled and nodded. Master Skippington came over to take the pastor. Robin slipped away and upstairs. Besides blankets and food, there were a few things she wanted that she didn’t want anyone else to see.

Neddrick had been through Master John’s bedroom. The hidden hole behind the bed was opened, and empty. Robin stuck her hand in and smiled. The false back she’d put in was still intact. She removed it and the three bags the remaining hole contained. In the bags were almost twenty pounds in various pieces of change: earnings from the inn, leftovers from Master John’s money, plus the loot from the thieves. There were also a keyboard console, a terry cloth towel, and an iPhone and its speaker dock. Robin hurried back downstairs. Master Skippington had been replaced by Master Shepwell.

“Master Skippington told me what happened here. We met as he was taking the pastor home,” Master Shepwell said. “I was on my way to the gaol, to see if I could bring anything to make Master Dean and Mistress Elizabeth more comfortable. Master Skippington said I should come here.”

“Oh. Thanks. I just want to get as much cheese and dried sausage as we have into these bags. And blankets, and a pot or two.”

“Master Skippington has already seen to that. I’ll help you carry them. What about your prisoner?”

“Leave him. There’s no way to carry him and everything else.”

“Yes, there is. You have a handcart.”

“Yeah. Hey, I’ve got an idea.” Robin chuckled. “Yeah. That’s perfect. Bring him along.”

Master Shepwell brought the handcart around, and dumped Neddrick into it. The two hurried along the quiet streets to the gaol. Robin was surprised to see that Dean and Elizabeth were still awake.

“We’ve enough food,” Dean hissed through the bars as he heard them approach.

“What food, you dope!” Robin hissed back.

“Robin!” Dean replied with delight. “Boy, am I glad to see you. See, Elizabeth, I told you.”

“I’ll bet you’re glad,” Robin returned. She looked at the lock and nodded. “You two get as far back from the door as you can.”

“Why?” asked Dean.

“Just do it.” Robin pulled her pistol from her sash once more.

With the barrel on top of the door lock, she squeezed the trigger. Nothing happened. Robin glared at the pistol, hit it with the heel of her hand and squeezed again. The heavy iron padlock danced against the bars of the door. Robin brought the butt of the pistol down onto the lock. It fell away easily. She swung the door open.

“Where did you get that gun?” Dean asked.

“Never mind,” said Robin as she re-loaded. “Just get your butts out of there.”

“Just a second, we got some stuff to collect.”

Robin nodded at Master Shepwell. As soon as Dean and Elizabeth emerged, Master Shepwell entered the gaol and dumped Neddrick in. Elizabeth gasped as she saw him.

“He was behind this,” she said.

“No kidding,” said Robin.

“Tis a pity,” said Master Shepwell, shutting the door. “I wish you didn’t have to leave. We’ve been looking forward to the wedding.”

“What wedding?” asked Robin.

“Master Dean and Mistress Elizabeth are betrothed,” replied Master Shepwell. Dean squirmed. “Surely you knew about that.”

“Oh, they are?” Robin glared at the pair. “No, I didn’t know. I’d sure like to know more, too.”

“It’s a long story,” said Dean quickly. “Let’s get out of here. Half the town probably heard that gun go off.”

“Half the town is helping us escape,” Robin pointed out. “Nonetheless, you’re right. Is everything loaded on the handcart?”

“Yeah,” Dean shook his head. “Sheesh, we’ve got enough food to last us a year.”

“Hopefully, we won’t need it for that long.” Robin turned. “Master Shepwell, please convey our sincerest thanks to everyone.”

“I will, Master Parker, Master Dean, Mistress Wynford, fare well, and God go with you.”

“And you too,” said Elizabeth.

They hurried off, slipping through the streets to the south road. Once out of sight of the town, Robin headed them off the road and across the fields to the London road. They traveled a couple more hours, then bedded down for the night.

The next morning, Robin had them up early and off again. But this time they stayed on the road because of the handcart. Dean and Elizabeth were silent. Robin saw they were waiting.

“All right,” she said about mid-morning. “What’s the long story, Dean?”

“It’s no big deal,” he replied. “We just had a marriage contract drawn up so Blount couldn’t do the same and get Elizabeth that way. Elizabeth knows we’re not really betrothed. It was just to protect her. That’s the only reason I went along with it.”

“That, and you knew it would be pretty hard to enforce a three-hundred-year-old contract,” Robin answered cynically. One look at Elizabeth told her there was a lot more involved, at least on the girl’s part.

“Hey, I didn’t think of that,” Dean said.

“I’m surprised,” said Robin. “I’ll bet this whole thing was Elizabeth’s idea.”

“And if it was?” Elizabeth said, defensively.

Robin sighed. “Elizabeth, surely you realize that Dean cannot stay in the Seventeenth Century. That’s going to make it very hard for you to marry him.”

Elizabeth shrugged.

“Hey, Robin, can we stop for lunch?” Dean asked.

“I guess.”

They pulled off the road into a little thicket. Elizabeth laid out a blanket and set out bread and cheese while Dean took Robin aside.

“Robin, will you please go easy on Elizabeth?” he asked. “The past few days have been really rough on her.”

“What do you mean?”

“You want to know the real reason she didn’t want to go back to her family?”

“All right.”

“She was convicted for witchcraft. Roger pulled her the night before she was supposed to be hanged. She’s really upset ‘cause she thinks she’s under some sort of curse that she’s going to get busted for witchcraft wherever she goes.”

Robin shook her head. “That’s ridiculous.”

“Maybe, but she really believes it.”

Robin sighed. “You really like her, don’t you?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Do you want to marry her?”

“Aw, come off it, Robin.” Dean flushed.

Robin paused, suddenly sorry she’d asked. Dean wasn’t denying it and even a blind person could see he was just as hooked as Elizabeth was.

“You think it’s time to go home yet?” Dean asked.

“And what about Elizabeth?”

“Bring her with us. She’ll get along in our time. And people won’t be trying to hang bogus witchcraft charges on her.”

Robin frowned. “Maybe.”

She turned away. Clearly Dean had had enough of their adventure. But there was still Elizabeth. Robin found it hard to dismiss the memory of how frightened the girl had been in the future. It would be cruel to bring Elizabeth forward again. Yet how to resolve hers and Dean’s obvious affection for each other?

“Why don’t we try getting lost in the big city first?” Robin said finally.

“Huh?”

“London.” She turned back to the blanket where Elizabeth was waiting. “Hey, Elizabeth, how do you feel about settling down in London for a while?”

Elizabeth smiled happily. “Oh, that would be most interesting. I’ve always wanted to go to London.”

“Well, there you have it,” Robin said triumphantly.

She did not see Dean winking at Elizabeth as if to suggest that they two were just going along to indulge Robin. Which they were.

 

In the gaol in Charing Vale, Donald Long paced relentlessly. Guards were mounted as the prisoner made every attempt to escape. It wasn’t until after the January Assizes were held and he was bound and taken to Scotland that he fell into a sullen stupor, mumbling over and over that he couldn’t have failed. The DNA had matched his. He was the baby’s father. It was unquestionable. He was the baby’s father.

Chapter Thirteen

In Charing Vale, on the day of the conscription, Dean and Elizabeth followed the rest of the villagers as they followed the recruits to the end of town. But as the crowd sullenly dispersed and the pair slowly made their way back to the inn, Dean firmly decided to make the best of the situation.

“Well,” he said as they entered the inn’s kitchen.

“This is terrible.” Elizabeth said.

“Yeah.” Dean took a deep breath. “But there isn’t much we can do about it. Besides, Robin’s smart. She’ll find a way out of it.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Elizabeth said. “But what about us in the meantime?”

“That.” Dean grinned as he put his arm around her waist and pulled her close. “Here’s the thing. I’ve been giving this a lot of thought, see?” He looked away, then looked at her again. “Okay, when we talked about us, before we got here? And I told you how in my time we have a way to stop girls from getting pregnant?”

“Oh.” Elizabeth pushed away. “You would think of that!”

“Elizabeth, I’m not saying we have to. It’s just that, you know, when I said that most girls in my time are doing it before they get married, and you were, like, wondering why they weren’t all afraid of getting pregnant, it looked like you were kind of interested when I said we had ways to stop that from happening.” Dean caught her hand and looked down at her sheepishly. “And I had this idea, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do about it, ‘cause of Robin being around, but now that she’s not, I thought, why not make it work for us, you know?”

Elizabeth pulled her hand away and crossed her arms. “And how do you propose to do that? We don’t have any of your magic here.”

“But we got sausage casings.” Dean grinned.

“What?”

“Sausage casings. I got the idea last week, when you were making those sausages. So I sort of tried it out, and it worked.” Dean held up his handiwork. “See? I wasn’t sure when I’d talk to you about it, but the way things are working out…  You know, we’ve got privacy and you wouldn’t have to sleep in the kitchen anymore.”

Elizabeth sat down on her bed. “I don’t know what to say. Dean, I want to please you, and if you truly believe I will not quicken, I guess I can believe you.”

“You bet you can believe me.” Dean flopped down next to her. “We’re too young to have kids. I’m not going to take that chance.”

“What chance do you take? All you have to do is leave, and you leave to another time where no one can find you.”

“Aw, come on, Elizabeth. That may be some guys, but that’s not me. I’m not going to get you pregnant until we’re ready, and even if I did, I’m not going to walk out on you and the baby. That’s just not right.”

Elizabeth looked at him curiously. “You wouldn’t?”

“Elizabeth, that is totally the wrong thing to do. Give me credit for some morals.”

“No, Dean.” She put her hand on his arm. “Of course, you have good morals. But here, in this time, when a man presses a maid to give up her maidenhood and she quickens, he’s not likely to marry her, especially when she has no father or brothers to see to it that he does. What reason would you have to marry me when it would be more than easy for you to leave me behind?”

“Like I love you?” Dean got up and started pacing. “I mean, I don’t want to get married now. We’re kind of young. Believe me, I don’t want to rush things. But, Elizabeth, I’m not leaving you behind. We’ll give Robin whatever time she needs to get used to the idea, but you’re coming back with us. Or I’m staying here.” He paused. “Look. I don’t want you to feel pressured. If you’re not ready, you’re not ready. That’s cool.”

Elizabeth smiled coyly. “You’re sure I won’t get pregnant?”

Dean held up the casing he’d fixed. “It’s pretty solid.”

“Hmm.”

The conversation was ended by the arrival of a traveler. A second arrived shortly after. Dean put them in the two rooms furthest from Master Miller’s old room, where he and Robin had been sleeping since the old man’s death.

As soon as it grew dark, a larger crowd than usual gathered in the best room. The men grumbled incessantly about the conscription, especially unhappy that they were unable to do anything about it. It hadn’t escaped anyone’s notice that the departed young men were mostly Master Blount’s least favorite people.

Dean took over the tapping. While the men understood, some of them still complained that Dean didn’t have his brother’s light hand on the tap. Dean sighed, but he had to admit Robin had always had a special knack for drawing beer.

Finally, the guests were bedded down, and the last of the drinkers left. A weary Elizabeth soaked the dirty tankards in the kettle while Dean scraped down the tables. He was tired. But Elizabeth could see he wasn’t too tired to have forgotten about the suggestion he’d made that afternoon. The only problem was she was still unsure about it.

Dean appeared at her side.

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” he said softly. “But if you want to come up and spend the night with me, I’d like that. We don’t have to do anything but sleep, either.”

Elizabeth frowned. “As if we were married.”

“I don’t know. If it makes you feel better, sure. Think of it that way.”

“But we’re not.”

Dean kissed her forehead. “Like I said, if it makes you feel better to think of it that way, go ahead.”

“It doesn’t,” Elizabeth sighed. She looked at him fondly. “I’ll not come up tonight.”

“That’s fine. I can wait.”

And he slid off upstairs.

A virtuous woman obeyed to her menfolk, Elizabeth reflected the next morning as she made the bread. Her father was gone, and while Dean wasn’t her husband, he certainly could be. Therefore, she should give him the obedience that was his due. There was no problem with that. Elizabeth was glad to do it. But being virtuous and obedient didn’t mean she couldn’t get her own way.

One had to know how to handle men. Her mother had been an expert, and Elizabeth another like her. The key was in knowing the man’s weakness. Denying the bedroom privilege rarely worked well, and Elizabeth had been in no position to deny her father that, as he naturally never took it. But Elizabeth had controlled her father well, and with a minimum of tears. Tears were only for emergencies. It was too easy for a man to realize he was being manipulated.

Dean was a whole other challenge. It seemed women were not terribly obedient in his world, and he expected her to be the same. Even stranger that he expected her to have relations with him without being married first. Or rather, that he considered having relations without being married to be completely normal and that the women of his time did so frequently. It had to be exaggeration. Elizabeth knew better than to trust a man’s word when he wanted to bed her.

But there was something different about Dean’s attitude. It was almost as if what she wanted really mattered to him. Elizabeth thought that over. Without her father, it seemed that Dean and Robin would have the final say over whom she married, at least, Pastor Layton had said so. But she couldn’t believe that Dean would let her marry anybody else, not when she wanted him. On the other hand, Dean did not want to get married, himself, but wasn’t ready to rule out the possibility.

It wasn’t unusual for the great lords and ladies to marry at very young ages, but most people in her station waited until their mid-twenties. That was so they could earn enough money to establish their own households first. But Dean and Elizabeth already had the inn. Elizabeth thought she’d heard Dean say something about getting ready to go to some sort of school that would make him a doctor of something or other, which she supposed meant he had resources in his own world to support a wife.

Which meant that they might as well marry, or at least, arrange their betrothal. With a public promise to marry, it would be a lot harder for her to be disgraced if Dean’s little sausage casing was less than it promised to be. Elizabeth smiled. She’d have to bring him to the idea carefully, but it was just as well. People got married and produced children, and that was the way life was.

Someone knocked at the door of the inn. Dean was in the stables. Elizabeth wiped her hands on her apron, and went to answer the door.

A scraggly looking man with a half-grown beard stood there with two sacks. He opened one.

“I’ve fine grain to sell, Mistress,” he said. “Fine barley it is.”

Elizabeth pawed through the grain and shook her head. It was mealy, and she thought she saw insects.

“No thank you,” she replied. “None today.”

“It’s good barley, Mistress.”

Elizabeth started as she noticed the ugly fellow leering at her.

“No,” she said firmly, and shut the door.

She returned to her work shaking. It had been a most unpleasant encounter, not unlike her encounter with Master Blount. Suddenly she smiled. A plan formed.

About three hours later, she was stirring cheese in the big heavy kettle. Dean came into the kitchen, bringing with him, as always, the smell of horse’s breath and fresh straw.

“Hello, my lovely little girl.” He came over and kissed her.

“Hello,” Elizabeth replied.

One nice thing about Robin being gone, Dean was a lot more affectionate.

“I’m afraid lunch will be a little late,” Elizabeth continued. “I’ve got to finish this. But I should be able to let it set in a couple minutes.”

“Sure.” Dean took a chunk of the previous day’s bread. “How was your morning?”

“Unsettling, I’m afraid.” Elizabeth sighed, then removed her paddle from the kettle. As she spoke, she pulled the kettle off the fire and set it on the hearth to cool.

“What happened?” Dean rummaged and found a rind from a wheel of cheese that had already been cured and aged some.

“Just a peddler. Oh, that reminds me. I’ll have to buy some more rennet on market day. I used the last of it for this.”

“Oh. Can we afford it?”

“I believe so.”

Dean slipped up behind her and nibbled the back of her neck. “So what was so unsettling about this peddler?”

“Nothing, really.” Elizabeth frowned at the cheese kettle. “I guess it was just the way he looked at me. It was not unlike the way Master Blount did.”

“So, you should have called me.”

“I didn’t need to. I just shut the door and he left. At least I hope he did.”

Dean went to the kitchen door. “You want me to check around?”

Elizabeth shook her head. “I don’t think the peddler is who we have to worry about.”

Dean shifted. “And who do you think is?”

“Master Blount. He’s not one to give up easily. I don’t think it was any coincidence he sent Robin off to the army.”

“Well, don’t worry, Elizabeth. He won’t get his hands on you.”

“He might, if we’re not careful.” Elizabeth set about tidying the kitchen. “He won’t try to attack you, Dean. You’re too strong. But he could by deceit. And you haven’t been in this world long enough to know how he could.”

Dean thought this over. “Well, you’ve been here most your life. How could he?”

“He could have a contract of marriage drawn up between me and whomever he wanted, and I would be forced to honor it. I have no father to protect me.”

“Don’t I count for something?”

Elizabeth plopped down forlornly onto a stool. “Not that way. I’m sure the only reason he hasn’t before was because he was afraid of both Robin and you. But with Robin gone. Good heavens, Dean, he could be writing up a contract now.”

“So how do we stop it?”

“Well, if there were already another contract made, and it were public…”

Dean folded his arms. “Elizabeth, why do I suddenly get the feeling you’re trying to talk me into marrying you?”

“I was just suggesting a betrothal. It’s just as binding, except it can be broken by the mutual consent of both parties.”

“Hm!” Dean snorted and paced about the kitchen. “You know, I’d swear you were trying to manipulate me into marrying you. And you probably are. The only thing that worries me is that I remember Pastor Layton saying something about this contract thing before.” He sighed. “You got me by the short hairs, you know. If I don’t go along with this, that SOB, Blount, tries the same thing, and carries you off. If I do, I’ve got you holding a promise to marry you over my head.”

Elizabeth sighed. “So you don’t want to marry me.”

Dean squirmed. “Aw, Elizabeth, honey. You know I love you. Isn’t that enough?”

“For what?” The strange remark startled her.

“For us. To be together.”

“What has love got to do with that?”

Dean was equally startled by her response. “But we’re talking about us.”

“We’re talking about marriage.” Elizabeth began setting the kitchen straight. “I mean it’s very nice if you can be in love with your spouse, but that’s not why people get married.”

“That’s the only reason why people get married in my time.”

She suddenly pouted. “Then, if you love me, why don’t you want to marry me?”

“It’s not you, Elizabeth.” Dean groaned. She’d gotten him again. “It’s, well… Oh, hell. Just cause you’re in love doesn’t mean you have to get married. There are lots of people in my time who just live together.”

Elizabeth gaped. “They live as man and wife and never get married?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s absurd,” she snorted.

“Well, that’s the way it goes. Look, we’re getting nowhere fast on this thing. Why don’t we talk to Pastor Layton and see what he can come up with?”

Elizabeth turned away and smiled to herself. “That’s an excellent idea.”

It suddenly dawned on Dean that the pastor would sympathize with Elizabeth.

“We’re not getting married, in any case,” he said finally. “I don’t even know if it’d be legal anyway. Technically, I’m not even born yet.”

“A public betrothal should do the trick.” Elizabeth smiled to herself as she found a small cheese and wrapped it carefully in a cloth.

“Yeah, well, you’d better keep in mind that if we do get betrothed, it’s only to keep Blount’s hands off you. Is that clear? I’m not going to marry you until I’m damn good and ready.”

“Yes, Dean.” Elizabeth bowed her head. “I’ll try not to say anything more about it, except…”

Dean folded his arms. “What now?”

“We’d best go this afternoon. Not that I’m trying to push you.”

“That’s exactly what you’re doing, and don’t think I don’t know it. You’re damn lucky old Blount is such a big threat. Well, we’re not going to be here forever. You just keep that in mind, and remember I don’t like being manipulated.”

They never did. Elizabeth watched as Dean paced about the kitchen. He was stuck, and they both knew it. Perhaps it was just as well, Elizabeth thought. In any case, she had removed a major threat and had just brought them closer to what he wanted, whether he realized it or not.

Mistress Layton smiled with delight at the small cheese Elizabeth brought.

“Of course, it needs to be aged a little longer,” said Elizabeth. “I just made it last week.”

“It’s very gracious of you,” said the pastor’s wife. “My thanks. I’ll go fetch my husband.”

Dean paced about the best room, glancing at Elizabeth every so often and sighing. It wasn’t her fault. Even without the Blount hassle, girls in her time got married, and there was something wrong when they didn’t. The poor kid. He did love her, and doing the domestic bit had been fun that morning. But, for heaven’s sakes, he was only twenty-one!

“This is rather unusual,” said Pastor Layton, sweeping in.  “I hope there isn’t any trouble.”

“We’re trying to prevent that,” said Dean. He glanced at Elizabeth, who remained silent, as all virtuous women did. “Uh, well, we remembered something you said about Master Blount trying to get up a marriage contract or something on Elizabeth. And, well, we thought we might try beating him to it.”

“I see.” The pastor nodded. “In other words, you and Elizabeth wish to be married.”

“Why don’t we just set up the contract today?” Dean smiled nervously. “We can worry about the wedding later.”

Pastor Layton smiled. “Why do you wish to wait for the wedding?”

“Uh, well, I’ve always liked spring weddings.” Dean winced internally at the unbelievably lame excuse that had just escaped his mouth. “And Robin! It wouldn’t be terribly fair to go and get married without Robin there. I mean our only family. Besides, we haven’t got any parents to pay for the wedding for us, and I don’t know how much these things cost, but they can’t be cheap, and, well, that funeral did set us back a bit. We want to save some money. You know, get off on the right foot, get Elizabeth a nice dress. Things like that.”

“Yes, I understand completely.” Pastor Layton tried not to laugh. Dean was not the first young man he’d met who was reluctant to become a husband. As the pastor smiled at Elizabeth, he realized just how hooked Dean was. The girl had maneuvered him into it, no doubt about that. But there was a genuine affection between the two that warmed Pastor Layton’s heart.

“Perhaps it would be best to wait,” he continued. “Does Master Robin know anything of this?”

“Not yet,” Dean sighed. “We didn’t want to rub it in, you know.”

“Ah, he has similar feelings for Mistress Elizabeth?”

Elizabeth giggled, and Dean grinned and shook his head.

“Nah,” he said. “No way. He’s just kind of lonely. But it’s a long story, and real complicated, and it involves a few family secrets. Not that he’s that way, you know. He’s

straight.”

“I never doubted it.” Their reactions puzzled the pastor. A stray possibility crossed his mind. It was not all that unusual in that particular village, although why Master Robin should have done so didn’t make sense. The memory of a lady skilled in healing troubled him. Master Robin was so much like her, and if he wasn’t what he said… Pastor Layton dismissed the thought. “I do have to consider one other thing. You say you are cousins. Just how close is the relationship?”

“Not close at all,” Dean said anxiously. “Third cousins, maybe. We’re really more like friends of the family. We just call ourselves cousins.”

Pastor Layton suspected that was closer to the truth than anything Dean had said. The pastor had always had a strong feeling the three had some secrets to hide, but he had no proof, and they were model members of the parish.

“Well, I have no objections to make,” Pastor Layton said. “In fact, I think it’s a very good idea. Not that I believe that you two have been anything but pure and modest in your dealings with each other. But I cannot feel that the two of you living alone together in that inn is particularly wholesome. Obviously, it is mostly recent circumstances that have provided the temptation, and I am glad to see that you are doing the right and proper thing.” He turned to a chest and pawed through it. “Here now, I’ve a couple sheets of parchment and some ink. We’ll draw this up right now.”

“Uh, can we date it about two days ago?” Dean asked. “Just to be sure we beat you know who.”

Pastor Layton sighed. “That’s not very ethical, but certainly very practical in light of recent occurrences. All right. I will. Now what possessions do you own outright?”

“Well, there’s my clothes.” Dean said after some thought. “And my sword. I guess I own the inn, but so do Robin and Elizabeth.”

“Well, Elizabeth’s part shall go to you upon the wedding. Have you no money?”

Dean shrugged. “Just the inn’s.”

The pastor nodded. “And you, Mistress Elizabeth, what can you offer for a dowry?”

“Just my share of the inn,” Elizabeth replied, ashamed. “We hold all the money in common.”

“I presume that has been working very well.” Pastor Layton sighed. “But it does make things somewhat awkward in this case. Neither of you have parents?” They shook their heads. “Then I shall have to take both parts for the moment. Mistress Elizabeth has offered her share of the inn as her dowry. Master Dean, what will you offer her in return?”

Dean shrugged. “My share?”

“Upon your death, certainly, but what about your children?”

“We don’t have any children.”

“With God’s grace, you will. What will give them when you die? They’ll be Elizabeth’s also.”

Dean frowned. “I’m confused. What’s all this when I die stuff? We’re setting up a marriage contract, not a will.”

“Master Dean, this is a business negotiation. Acting in place of Elizabeth’s father, I must see to it that provisions are made for her support both now and in the future. In turn acting for your father, I must ensure that her dowry compensates for those provisions. Do you understand?”

“Yeah.” Dean understood the contract part. Why it was that way baffled him.

“All right. Now I would suggest that your part be the restoration of her dowry upon your death, should she survive you, and that both shares go to any children you have together, if you survive her, even if you remarry. I would also recommend that she receive an allowance.”

“Why? She can take whatever money she needs.”

“Then let us guarantee that in writing. Say ten pounds per annum. Does that sound fair?”

“I guess.” Dean shifted. “You sure you’re not taking me?”

“Well,” Pastor Layton thought as he gazed at Elizabeth. “Mistress Elizabeth is a strong, healthy girl. She should bear several good sons. She’s a hard worker, and an excellent cook. I’d say you’re getting a very good deal.”

“Okay, then,” Dean conceded, although he felt deeply disturbed.

As much as he hated the idea of getting married, he resented the pastor dealing with it as if it were just another business deal. Dean fumed while Pastor Layton did the writing, then signed the paper with two townsmen who had stopped by to witness it. Back at the inn, Dean let out his anger.

“He treated you as if you were a piece of meat!” he told Elizabeth as they spread the barley on the roasting trays.

“So?” Elizabeth was slightly amused by Dean’s reaction, even as it puzzled her.

“But you’re not. You’re a woman.”

“And that’s exactly how he treated me. And he got a very good settlement for me.”

“I knew I was being taken to the cleaners.”

“It was a very fair settlement.” Elizabeth paused and looked at him sadly. “You don’t think I’m worth it?”

Dean groaned, caught again. “Of course you are. It’s the way he evaluated you, as if all I wanted was your kids and your elbow grease.”

“That’s what a wife is for.”

“Not where I come from! And I’ll be damned if that’s the kind of wife you’re gonna be. There’s a whole lot of other important things that he forgot, like companionship, and love. Anything but kids and how much work you can do for me. Geez, he even figured all I wanted was boys!”

“Well, girls are a liability. You have to pay dowries for them, and they’re not cheap. I just wish I had more to offer you. If I was with my father still, you could have had a hundred pounds, plus five sacks of wool every year for five years. I heard him offer that once for me, but he couldn’t get enough from the man.” She sighed as they shoved the trays into the oven.

“Elizabeth.” Dean pulled her into his arms. “I don’t want any money. I just want you.”

“Oh, Dean, you say the sweetest things.”

That night, after the townsmen had left and the guests were bedded down, Elizabeth stole through the darkness upstairs to Dean’s bed.

For Elizabeth, the days passed quickly. She said no more about the contract to Dean. But word spread fast in a village eager for any festivity, let alone a wedding. Elizabeth wasn’t sure she and Dean would be able to stay long enough to accommodate the village. Nonetheless, she had protection from Master Blount and an excuse to be intimate with Dean, so she happily accepted the congratulations.

She only worried about Robin. If someone found out the truth about her, it was likely Robin would be hung, and probably raped. Not a pleasant thought. Robin’s quick wits were the only reason Elizabeth didn’t worry about it too much. It amused Elizabeth no end that Robin, although a woman, had the heart of a man, and certainly more intelligence than most.

Dean, for his part, refused to worry about his sister, at least initially. He knew the consequences could be dire if she got caught. But that was if she got caught. Dean figured the odds were against it. Robin was just too smart.

If anything, he was too busy compensating for her absence to worry. There really wasn’t all that much extra work to do since the garden was finished for the fall. But Robin had a knack for repair work that Dean just did not have. Something around the inn always needed fixing, Dean noted to his dismay.

He accepted the ribbing from the townsmen about his upcoming nuptials with congenial indifference. They didn’t have to know the truth. Once Robin was back, they would leave. With any luck at all, Dean could convince Robin to let them go home. He’d like to see the townspeople try to find them after that. And in the meantime, he still had his nights with Elizabeth.

When Robin still hadn’t shown up after a week, Dean did start to worry. Elizabeth worried because there hadn’t been even the slightest sign of trouble from Master Blount, and she knew that couldn’t last.

“He must be planning something.” Elizabeth sighed as she removed the bread from the oven that morning. “He’s not the type to forget his revenge.”

The weather had chilled even more, with an icy wind whipping through the village, tearing the last of the autumn leaves from the trees.

“So let him plan.” Dean replied. He was taking a break from the stables and warmed his hands by the fire. “Robin’s gonna be back any time now, and then we’ll take off. We’ll be gone before old fatso has a chance to strike.”

“That’s if Robin comes back.”

Dean bit his lip and hoped that Elizabeth hadn’t seen. “Okay, I admit it’s possible she won’t. But I know her. Hell, she got us this far. She’s no dope. I got a lot of confidence in her.”

“But what are we going to do if she doesn’t come back?” Elizabeth fretted with the edge of her apron.

“Stay here, I guess. There’s no place else to go, and I can’t work that machine of hers, even if I could find it.”

“I think I know where it may be.”

“That hidey-hole behind the bed, right?” Dean shook his head. “I already looked. It isn’t there.”

“It must be somewhere she could get it easily. It’s funny, right after Master John’s death, I saw her cutting a piece of board. It must have something to do with where she hid everything.”

Dean shrugged. “Who knows? Like I said, it’s no help if I find the thing anyway. I can’t work it. So we’re stuck here.”

“That’s not so bad, is it?”

“I guess not. But it’s going to be awful hard on my parents if they never see me again. That, and…” He sighed and looked at her.

They’d had this conversation several times already. Some days, when Dean would expound on the wonders of modern medicines that cured and stopped the plague, on longer lifespans, on being able to keep one’s teeth all one’s life and lightbulbs and running water, Elizabeth looked as though she liked the idea. Dean could tell this was not going to be one of those mornings.

He wasn’t sure what bothered him more, the fact that Elizabeth was still apprehensive about his time or that she’d follow him there whether she wanted to go or not. He kicked the andiron in frustration.

“I’d better get back to work,” he said, turning for the door.

“Dean, your cloak.” Elizabeth looked around for the garment.

But as Dean opened the door, he stopped. “What was that?”

“Dean, you’re forgetting your cloak and your gloves.” Elizabeth looked over at the hook next to the door, where the cloak was supposed to be.

“Sh!” Dean listened. “It sounds like someone screaming.”

“It’s probably a seagull.” Elizabeth finally found the cloak and gloves on the chair next to the fireplace.

“That’s no seagull. Somebody’s in trouble on the beach.” Dean ran off.

“You forgot your cloak and your gloves!” Elizabeth grabbed the articles, plus her own and ran off after him.

As Dean hit the beach, he saw a woman on some of the rocks near a seaside path. She pointed out towards the water. Others hurried up from the village. Out on the water just beyond the breakers a small dark figure bobbed. Dean saw the small arm sweep up.

“We’ll get a boat!” someone called.

There was no time, not with the water as bitingly cold as the icy wind driving the surf to fury. With no time to debate it, Dean shed his boots and doublet as he ran for the water.

“Dean!” Elizabeth screamed, but her words didn’t register.

Dean dove headlong into the crashing waves. The freezing water shocked and numbed him almost to paralysis. He broke the surface and got a good strong breath. Years of experience took over. His arms moved up and over his head, and kicked his legs from the hip. Dean swam across the surf, not against it, diving when a breaker was about to crash down on him.

He was five feet away when the boy sank. Dean dove once more and caught him. The low tide left a wide expanse of beach and Dean in water too deep to stand in. He treaded water as he checked the tiny victim. The boy had stopped breathing. Dean quickly turned him over his arm, forced the water out of his lungs, then set the child floating on his back. Dean bent back the head and blew life-giving air into the child’s lungs.

This time, it worked. A few minutes later, the boy coughed and spit up more water. Sighing with relief, Dean cradled the boy in his arms and began the swim into shore. He let the waves do much of the work, floating in on his back, with the child on his belly. He stood the moment it was possible to get anywhere that way, holding the child next to him, giving what warmth his chilled body had left.

The noise on the beach was incredible. The mother screamed for her child.

“Get some blankets, damn it!” Dean yelped.

Elizabeth was there in seconds, wrapping Dean’s cloak around the two.

“Let’s get them back to the inn,” she called. “There’s a fire there and soup.”

Close to exhaustion and chilled to the bone, Dean sank into the chair next to the kitchen fireplace. Someone had already relieved him of the child, and his mother sat across the fireplace from Dean, holding her son and crooning softly.

“Everyone else, stay out!” Elizabeth demanded fiercely. “We don’t have room, and I need to shut the door to keep the warmth in. Oh, no! Goodbye!”

“He’ll be all right,” Dean gasped to no one in particular. “He’s a trooper.”

“What strange spell is he uttering?” the boy’s mother asked.

“It’s no spell!” Elizabeth snapped. She handed a bowl of soup to her. “Have him drink this. It’ll warm him. It’s only soup.”

The woman sniffed at it anyway. “Well, it smells like it.”

Elizabeth ignored her as she made Dean drink from another bowl, then stripped him of the wet cloak and replaced it with a blanket. Dean was shaking so hard he found it difficult to maneuver the warm bowl to his mouth. After the first few sips, the shaking slowed. Elizabeth ran upstairs.

“Damn, I’m cold,” Dean grumbled.

“What took you so long out there?” the woman asked.

“I was saving your kid’s life, lady.”

She trembled. “With magic?”

“Aw, come on,” Dean groaned.

“Dean, hush,” Elizabeth commanded as she re-entered the room. “Here, Mistress, wrap the child in this.”

The woman took the blanket in wonderment. “It’s from your own bed.”

“Yes.”

“I don’t understand this.” She slowly began weeping. “I have seen something fearful, yet I feel I must be grateful.”

Someone knocked loudly at the kitchen door.

“Mary?” called a man’s voice.

“My husband,” said the woman.

Weary, Elizabeth opened the door and admitted the young farmer.

“Mary, how is he?” The farmer rushed to the woman’s side. Elizabeth placed him as Master Fletcher.

“Chilled now, but he’ll be all right,” replied Mistress Fletcher.

“I’ve heard the worst rumors,” continued the farmer.

“He saved our son. That’s all we need concern ourselves with,” his wife answered. “Mistress Wynford has been exceedingly kind, too, even when I was not very charitable. I can only pray she’ll forgive me.”

Elizabeth nodded.

Master Fletcher stood. “Thank you both. I don’t have words enough to express how I feel, but thank you. We’ll go now. He’s warm enough. It’ll be best if we get him back to his own hearth as soon as possible. Thank you again.”

In a few minutes, the people were gone. Elizabeth shut the door, then crossed over to the bed, sank down onto it, and sobbed.

“What’s the matter?” Dean asked.

“Why did you have to stay out there so long?”

Dean rolled his eye. “He had stopped breathing. I had to get that going again before I could bring him in.”

“Did you have to?” Elizabeth all but shrieked.

“Would you rather I let the kid die?”

“No! It’s just no one has ever seen anyone float in one place like that and come out alive.”

“In salt water it’s easy.” Dean pulled the blanket even closer around him.

“Not like that.” Elizabeth choked and glared at him. “There are those who fear you used magic.”

Dean coughed. “I was just treading water. It’s the first thing they teach you in swimming class.”

“Dean! Master Blount was there, and he was smiling!”

Dean’s reply was obscene.

“I knew he was waiting for something, and now I know what,” Elizabeth sobbed.

“Don’t worry.” Dean sighed. He was too tired and too cold to move from the fire. “Come here. It’s gonna be all right. I don’t know how, but it’ll be okay. They can’t bust you for saving somebody’s life.”

“But they can for witchcraft, and that’s what Master Blount will say you used to save that boy.” Reluctantly, Elizabeth came over to the fire and knelt at Dean’s side.

“Well, there’s not much I can do about it now. I sure as hell wasn’t going to let him drown. If I know Blount, he may have rigged the whole episode. Probably bribed the broad to bring her kid out there, and then he knocked the brat in when she wasn’t looking.”

Elizabeth trembled as she put her head in his lap. “You’ll never prove it.”

“So what? As soon as Robin comes, we’re taking off. So who cares?”

“What if she doesn’t get here in time?”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

In another hour Dean and his clothes were dry, and he was warm enough to function. He still carried around that deep chill that nothing can warm. Elizabeth fed him another bowl of soup.

Dean had just finished when Master Blount arrived to arrest the two of them. The charge was witchcraft. Elizabeth remained resolute and calm until they shut the gaol door on them. Then she burst into almost hysterical sobs.

“We’re gonna be all right!” Dean yelled, shaking her. “They can’t convict us. We’re innocent.”

“They can too!” Elizabeth sobbed back. “It’s a curse I must live with.”

“Don’t be silly.”

“But it’s true!” Elizabeth tried to hold her tears back, but finally gave in. “You may as well know the worst. Everywhere I go, Dean, I am accused of witchcraft. That’s why I didn’t want to back to Kent. I am a convicted witch there. Oh, Dean, I was innocent then, too. It didn’t matter. I thought I was doing something good, learning my psalms. But I somehow learned to read them on my own and they all said it was by the power of the Devil because I could read other things, too. And I told Mistress Langley that the sheriff had the pox, which anyone could tell by the way he scratched himself, only she said I cursed him and he got it. And someone else said that I crossed my eyes at their cow and it stopped milking. I don’t even remember seeing the silly cow! But that’s why I went with Roger. He got me from the gaol the night before I was to be hanged. And then there was Downleigh and now this. Dean, I must be a witch or something horrible to have this happen. Oh, you must hate me.”

“What?” Dean gaped, then pulled her into his arms. “Don’t be ridiculous, Elizabeth. There is no such thing as witches. Okay, maybe there’s this pagan religion thing, but that’s not us.”

“But it is me. It must be. And now you know my shame.”

“Shame, my ass. You’re not a witch and neither am I. We’re just damned unlucky and manage to get on the bad sides of the wrong people. That’s all this witchcraft nonsense is. It’s just politics. It was the same way with the Salem witch hunts. There’s a play about it called ‘The Crucible.’  We did it in high school. You get on someone’s bad side, and they call you a witch, and bang, you’re in jail.”

“But Master Blount can buy a lot of witnesses, and after today…”

“Don’t worry. We’ll get out of this. I don’t know how, but we will. I’ve got this thing about being hanged. I figure it’s not too good for my health. Now, hold on. Someone’s coming.”

It was Pastor Layton. He sighed as he approached the gaol. It was a small single room building near the church. One of Blount’s goons accompanied the pastor.

“I’ll examine them alone,” Pastor Layton instructed the man. “You may come fetch me when I call.”

The goon silently opened the locked door, admitted the pastor, then locked the door and left.

“Well,” said Pastor Layton. “I have been sent by Master Blount to examine you for witchcraft.”

“We haven’t done any,” said Dean stubbornly.

“I’m somewhat inclined to agree. But there are some things.” The pastor shook his head. “You and Master Robin are a strange threesome. It’s nothing I can put my finger on, of course. And today’s event. By what power did you rescue that child?”

“By God’s power, what else?” Elizabeth blurted out.

“But I must find out,” returned the pastor. “Was it truly a miracle or an act of the devil? He is known to appear as an angel of light.”

“But don’t you think,” interrupted Dean, “that if it was something evil, there’d be something fishy about it somewhere?”

“Of course,” Pastor Layton answered.

“Well, I’m all right. The kid’s all right.”

“I know,” said the pastor sadly.

“That’s the whole problem,” Elizabeth said suddenly. “Pray forgive me for being so forward, but that’s it. You can’t find any evil stench about the act. I can see you can’t. It was a good innocent act, aided by the grace of God. The stench about it is that of Master Blount.”

“True,” Pastor Layton conceded. “But Master Blount is a very powerful man, and he does have the ear of my bishop. Rest assured, I would far rather lose my post than let innocent people go to the gallows. But if I lose my post, your doom is sealed. What we need is time. I think that I might be able to stall the trial. I don’t know for how long. Master Blount would have you convicted and hung by tonight, if he could. All we need is a little bit more time. Then…” He looked at the two. “It has reached my ears that two young men have left the army, a Master Edward Skippington, and a Master Robin Parker. No doubt Master Blount knows this also, and is looking for them.”

“Then they shall be captured,” said Elizabeth nervously.

“I’m not sure.” replied the pastor. “As you know, Master Robin has very quick wits. An odd one, all right. If it be the same oddity as Master Edward’s, no one will even look for them. I must go.”

Before another word could be said, Pastor Layton called for the goon and left.

“So I guess we sit back and wait,” sighed Dean when they were alone again.

“I almost wish Roger would come along just now.”

“I’ll give you better odds that Robin gets here first.”

Elizabeth shrugged, and Dean set about trying to make the floor a little bit more comfortable. Then they both sat back and waited.

 

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.”