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.
“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.”
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?”
“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
“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.”
“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.”
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.