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.

IMG_2876

 

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.

 

IMG_2879

 

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.

IMG_2881

 

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.

IMG_2885

 

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.

IMG_2913

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.

IMG_2915

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.

IMG_2921

 

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

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

A Ring for a Second Chance is Now Available!

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

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

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

Chapter Twelve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks,” Edward gasped.

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

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

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

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

Robin gaped.  “What?”

“You pee like a woman, Mistress Robin.”

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

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

“But…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edward shrugged.

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

There was a collective sigh from the group.

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

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

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

“What’s wrong with you?” Robin asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I suppose,” Robin sighed.

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

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

“Not tired enough,” sniggered Richard.

Samuel glared at him while Robin smiled to herself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin heard several gun reports as they ate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edward just shrugged and showed Robin how it was done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The evaluations took the better part of the day.

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

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

“What do you mean?” asked Charles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?” asked Samuel.

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

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

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

“What?” asked Edward, bewildered.

“We’re leaving.” said Robin.

“Where?”

“Here.  We’re going home.”

“On the Sabbath?”

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

“But we have to say goodbye.”

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

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

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

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

“Why now?”  Edward yawned.

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

Edward shrugged and hurried after.

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

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

“Isn’t that dangerous?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me.” said a strange voice.

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

“Can I help you?” asked Robin cautiously.

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

“Well, lunch,” said Robin.

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

“It’s not necessary,” Robin shifted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin stood slowly.  “What do you want?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course, but not like that.”

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

The rope fell from Edward’s wrists.

“Now what?” she asked.

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

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

“Gold.” gasped Robin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you read?” Robin asked.

“Yes, father taught me.”

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

“It’s not that bad.”

“No.  But you know what I mean.”

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

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

“I’ll watch first.”

“Okay.  Wake me in a couple hours.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You were right!” gasped Edward.

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

“Such as one Master Blount.”

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

Essays, general essay

Feedback Frenzy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Eleven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“True, so does his brother.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blount looked confused.  “A mistake?”

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

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

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

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

“We’ll survive,” Robin sighed.

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

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

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

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

also known for taking his time to do it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hm,” she said suddenly.

“What?” asked Master Woolwich, joining her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That night, the inn was filled with grumbling men.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The teen undid his scroll and cleared his throat.

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

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

“For once, I agree,” Robin muttered.

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

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

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

Dean shrugged.  “Better you than me.”

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

“You do?  Oh.  Right.”

Robin resisted the temptation to thunk Dean in the head.

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

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

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

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

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

“So, Master Parker,” wheezed Master Blount.

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

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

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

“One hundred pounds,” Blount said quickly.

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

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

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

“So?  It will cost you one hundred.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin swallowed, tempted.  “What about Elizabeth?”

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

Elizabeth nodded reluctantly.  “Yes.  We will.”

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

“But, Robin-“

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

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth smiled warmly.  “I will.”

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

Chapter Ten

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

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

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

“Master Miller should,” said Elizabeth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well?” asked Dean.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Master Miller laughed also, and refused to answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, it has been,” said Robin.

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

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

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

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

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

Robin rolled her eyes and walked off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not asking,” the man snarled.

He grabbed at her again, but she skittered back.

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

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

“Very well,” said the leader.

He turned and left, his goons following.

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

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

“We damn well better,” said Dean.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Master Miller snorted.

“What’s all that about?” asked Dean.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’d better rest today,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

crumpled heap in the center of the floor.

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

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

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

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

“It’s no use, Dean,” Robin sniffed.

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

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

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

“Dean!” Robin called after him.

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

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

“But Dean…” Robin protested weakly.

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

“It’ll be dark soon.”

They set up the table.

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

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

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

Robin stumbled out into the growing mist.

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

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

Pastor Layton was there in seconds.

“There is trouble.” he observed.

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

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

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

“Of course.  Let me get my cloak.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you do.”

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

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

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

“And Robin.”

“She’s my sister.”

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

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

“Never?”

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

Elizabeth shivered, but Dean didn’t quite notice.

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

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

“Aren’t you sad?”

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

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

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

“I feel so empty,” Dean whispered.

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

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

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

wood.

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

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

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

“I love you, Dean.”

There was another long pause.

“We’d better get going,” Dean said.

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

Pastor Layton smiled and suggested Robin find comfort in activity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So much?” Elizabeth gasped.

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

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

“To us?” Dean said in shock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t doubt it,” grumbled Robin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Master Blount?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two looked at each other and began to giggle.

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

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

“A what?”

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

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

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

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

“Cabbage leaves?”

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

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

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

Robin merely groaned and pulled the blanket back.

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

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

Robin merely groaned as she bent over her porridge.

Elizabeth left to answer the knocking at the front door.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I guess I do,” sighed Robin.

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

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

“I agree,” said Master Shepwell.

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

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

“Witness on this Stone before you stand

Read how Avarice killed an Honest Man

A greedy Taxman was the Bloke

And Master Miller’s poor Heart was Broke

Forced to Pay more Twice he ow’d

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

John Miller

Died the 1st of October 1642

Aged 71 yrs

Cursed be he that moves this Stone or my Bones”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, certainly,” Master Shepwell stammered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin staggered up straight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essays, general essay

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

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

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

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

 

 

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