Chapter Fifteen

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

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

“It sure smells,” Dean observed.

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

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

“Don’t you know?” asked Dean.

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

“So what do we do?”

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

“Can’t be that bad,” said Dean.

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

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

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

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

“He makes candles.” Elizabeth sighed.

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

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

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

“Dean, look out!” she screamed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dean!” Elizabeth screamed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But, sir…” the boy began nervously.

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

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

“He’s still with us,” Robin told her.

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

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

“But why?”

“Just do it, damn it!” Robin snapped.

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

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

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

Dean moaned.

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

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

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

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

“A surgeon could do that.”

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

“Perhaps you are right.”

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

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

Elizabeth returned with a bowl full of dripping cloths.

“Here are the bandages,” she said.

“Are they wrung out?” Robin asked.

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know.” Elizabeth blinked back tears.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then how do you know they’re there?”

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

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

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

“It’s hurting him!” gasped Elizabeth.

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

“Perhaps we should bleed him.”

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

“But that’s what’s done for a fever.”

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

Elizabeth nodded sadly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If you wish,” Elizabeth replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I want Kool-Aid.”

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

Dean took a sip, then another.

“That’s a good boy. Try another.”

Dean sipped again. “Where’s Daddy?”

“He’s working, Dean.”

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

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

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

“I don’t think so.”

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

“Robby, are you going away, too?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh. Where’s Robin?”

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

“Yeah. You okay?”

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

“Uh, London, sixteen something or other.”

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

Dean coughed weakly. “Have I been sick?”

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

She hurried out before her joy could betray her.

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 13

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.

 

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.”

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.

Chapter Nine

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

“That was fast,” said Dean.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anybody there?” she called.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As you wish,” sighed the voice.

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

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

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

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

“Mistress Ford seemed pleased,” Robin replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

“How are you at nursing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A middle aged woman appeared from the house.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh, no,” Robin replied.

“Yet you’re so tall,” said Samuel.

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

“What’s in the sack?” asked John.

“Barley and hops,” Robin answered.

“To sell?” asked John.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That was kind of her.” Robin replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As I said, highwaymen,” Elizabeth replied.

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

“True,” Elizabeth conceded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” replied the pastor.

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

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

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

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

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

“Just the Donne poems and the Shakespeare.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin shrugged.  “Never heard of them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is?” asked Dean.

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

She returned the book to the pastor.

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

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

Dean jumped up.  “I’ll help.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, sir.”  Robin smiled.

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

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

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

“So was Marlowe,” Robin shot back.

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

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

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

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

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

“Not brewing any ale today?” asked Samuel.

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

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

“About what?” asked Robin.  She stood.

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

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

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

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

The boys cheered.  Elizabeth came outside from the kitchen.

“Robin, where’s Dean?” she asked.

“In the stable.” Robin replied.

Elizabeth left.  The boys stared after her.

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

Robert looked at Samuel, who nodded.

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

“Who are we talking about?” Robin asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin sighed.

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

“The Mafia?” Elizabeth asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll see,” grumbled Robin.

Chapter Eight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth laughed and ran off into the trees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How, Dean?” Robin returned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just because you don’t like it.”

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

“Hell, it scares me.”

Robin paused. “You’ve got a point.”

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

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

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

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

Dean shrugged. “It’s a good tune.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just your eardrums,” replied Robin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But the chest.”

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

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

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

“Ermph?” he asked sleepily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We may as well,” conceded Robin.

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

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

“At least we’re rich,” chortled Dean.

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

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

Robin looked at Elizabeth, who nodded. Dean cheered.

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

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

Chapter Seven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know,” Robin replied.

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

Robin explained about the men.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maggots,” Master Ford whimpered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then what the hell were they?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How would I know?” grumbled Dean.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin sighed. “You’re probably right.”

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

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

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

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

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

Robin started. “What’s that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s going on?” asked Dean.

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

“We’re not witches!” Dean protested.

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

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

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

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

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

Dean swore loudly.

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

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

“Thanks,” Robin’s voice suddenly choked.

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

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

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

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

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

They heard Mistress Ford wailing in the yard.

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

“Which way?” demanded Pastor Middleton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Damn,” the newcomer muttered.

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

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

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

“This.” He pulled something from his belt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” she whispered.

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

“What pistol?”

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

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

Robin shushed him in reply.

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

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

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

He found her next to the stream, weeping.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So? We’re not witches.”

“But, Dean—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is here.”

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

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

“I feel better,” she said softly.

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

“And why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dean caught her as she stomped off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But what about falling in love?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I very much doubt that.”

Dean bent and they softly kissed.

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

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

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

“Wo-oh!”

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter Six

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

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

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

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

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

Mistress Ford looked shocked. “A clerk?”

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

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

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

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

“Sir?” Robin asked.

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

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

“Uh, yes.”

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

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

“How so?”

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

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

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

“Uh, Master Robert Neddrick.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

“They disagreed with the other pastor, right?”

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah.”

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

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

“That sounds like this guy.”

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

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

Dean groaned as Robin rolled over to go to sleep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. I guess Middleton’s wrong.”

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

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

Dean just shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth appeared a moment later.

“We need boiling water,” Robin told her.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Robin shifted under the older man’s odd scrutiny.

“Yes, sir,” she said.

“Good sir, I’d like to talk to you.”

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

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

“No, sir. And I’m not the only one.”

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

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

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

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

“Evil?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who rules her husband?” snarled the pastor.

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

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

“It wasn’t like that,” Robin snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Both,” grumbled Robin. “I’m sorry.”

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

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

“And you boys?” Mistress Ford asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“And who is Jerry Falwell?”

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

Elizabeth frowned.

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

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

“Is it the same land as the Colonies?”

“Yes.” Robin looked puzzled.

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

Robin suddenly understood Elizabeth’s confusion.

“Where’s Dean?” Robin asked.

“Watching the barley.”

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

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

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

Elizabeth shuddered, but Robin didn’t notice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How long was I asleep?”

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

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

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

“But how can one change time?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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