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.”
“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.