The three young gentlemen soldiers were gone before the sun rose the next morning. Robin wasn’t sure how it happened, but by noon, the entire village knew of the attack on Elizabeth the night before. Perhaps not as surprising was the way the number of attackers grew as the tale was told.
And with each telling Robin’s and Dean’s stock in the village grew. The villagers weren’t ready to embrace the pair as their own. But they were more willing to accept them.
A little over a week after the attack, Robin accompanied Elizabeth to the church to deliver some cheese to the pastor. As they approached the square, where the village well was located, Robin heard the familiar hiss of children whispering behind her.
She whirled, hollering “Boo!”
Screaming, the children scattered, giggling as they pushed each other out of the way.
“You’ve gotten quite popular,” Elizabeth teased.
“And how many men did I fight off?” Robin sighed. “Isn’t the number up to twenty by now?”
Elizabeth laughed. The sound of another young woman’s laughter echoed.
It belonged to Mistress Mary Smith, the tinker’s daughter. Standing next to the well, the pleasantly plump young woman was just dropping the last of a bit of laundry into her basket.
“Good day, Master Parker, Mistress Wynford,” she said.
“Good day, Mistress Smith,” Elizabeth replied. “How fares Mistress Blethen?”
Mistress Smith wrinkled her nose in disgust. A couple years older than Elizabeth, she worked as housekeeper for the village midwife. It was not unusual for the women of the village to have some help, and most of the older girls worked in other houses for several years from their late teens, waiting to marry until they were in their early twenties. As a widow, Mistress Blethen was quite poor, so working for her was considered something of an act of charity, unless one hoped to eventually take over the widow’s birthing trade.
“My mistress is well enough,” Mistress Smith said. “However, she has decided that I’m not. She said I don’t have the knack for birthing.”
Mistress Smith sniffed with annoyance, then eyed Robin.
Robin didn’t notice.
“Indeed,” said Elizabeth, who had noticed the eyeing, but decided not to say anything. “I thought Mistress Barkett’s laying in went rather well.”
“No thanks to me, apparently.”
“Mary Smith, will you be all day with those clothes?” called a rather stern voice.
Mistress Blethen, a tall, thin woman, moved stiffly as she emerged from the pastor’s house. She carried a certain calm about her that could be very soothing when she was assisting at a birth or otherwise helping some ailing villager. Or the calm could be imposing, such as when dealing with a slow serving girl.
Mistress Smith rolled her eyes, smiled at Robin, then scuttled away, neatly dodging her employer. Mistress Blethen shook her head as the girl hurried down the street.
“Good day, Master Parker, Mistress Wynford,” she said.
Robin and Elizabeth returned the old woman’s greeting.
“Master Parker, I should like to speak with your mistress,” Mistress Blethen said. “If she would be so good as to call on me within the next day or two.”
“May I tell her what about?” Robin asked.
“Yes. She was interested in taking up midwifery, and both she and you, Mistress Wynford, are quite helpful.” Mistress Blethen shifted uncomfortably, rubbing her lower back. “My rheumatism is getting worse.”
“I’ll tell her,” said Robin. “You’ve just been to see the pastor?”
“Yes. He’s doing better today.”
“Oh, that’s a blessing,” said Elizabeth. “We’ve brought a cheese for him.”
Mistress Blethen nodded. “Let us hope that will tempt him. Mistress Ford’s cheeses are among the best in the village.”
Robin held her peace. The pastor had developed a bad cough during the last rain, which had turned into a fever. Robin was fairly certain it was some kind of strep infection, but there was no way to explain that, not to mention any antibiotics to combat it. Still, he had gotten through the worst of the fever and word had it, was on the mend.
The pastor’s housekeeper took the cheese gratefully. Elizabeth offered to visit the sick man, but he was sleeping, so the two returned to the inn. Robin made her way to the garden.
Elizabeth returned to the kitchen. Mistress Ford was skinning a rabbit.
“Oh, good,” said the older woman. “I was hoping you’d come back quickly. We’ve had two guests arrive since you’ve been gone. That’s the third today. We’ll have to make extra bread for tonight.”
Elizabeth went to work quickly.
“Mistress Blethen would like you to call on her,” Elizabeth said, stirring the flour, yeast and water together. “About taking on the midwiving.”
“Yes, I thought she might,” Mistress Ford replied. She smiled softly at Elizabeth. “You have quite the gift for it, too.”
“Thank you, Mistress.”
“Well, I think I shall take it on. With your cousins here, it will be easier to leave the inn. I just hope they don’t get the itch to move on.”
“So do I,” said Elizabeth softly.
Robin and Dean had adapted well to her world, better than she had adapted to theirs, she reflected bitterly. She gave the dough she was kneading an extra vigorous push.
“As soon as the bread is set to rise, why don’t you bring Dean and Robin some water?” said Mistress Ford, getting up herself and dropping the skinned and cleaned rabbit into the soup pot.
It didn’t take long to finish with the dough, and Elizabeth soon had it on the kitchen windowsill, a clean cloth covering it.
Out in the garden, Robin drank deeply and thanked Elizabeth, who went on to the stable with the bucket of water and ladle.
Elizabeth stopped in the doorway.
“Dean?” she called.
“Over here.” Dean appeared from one of the stalls. “What’s up?”
“I brought some water.”
“Thanks.” He took the dipper and drank. “I can handle a break right now.”
Dean reached above him to the beam above the doorway and lifted himself. Elizabeth leaned against the door jamb and laughed.
“Showing off again, Dean?” she teased.
“What for?” Dean grunted, raising and lowering himself at regular intervals. “There isn’t anyone in the town bigger than me.”
“I thought perchance you were a little jealous of good Master Thomas Barton.”
“Of that sniveling twit? Hah!” Nonetheless, Dean stopped his lifting exercise and dropped heavily to the ground. “Just ‘cause I don’t want him manhandling you.”
Elizabeth shrugged. “I can deal with his kind.”
“Yeah, well, the best way to do it is to keep your distance. You gotta watch out for those type of guys. There’s only one thing they’re after, and it’s not very nice.”
“I know what he’s after, Dean.” Elizabeth rolled her eyes.
Dean almost flushed. “Let’s not talk about that. You got some more water?”
Elizabeth handed him the ladle feeling perplexed. Dean wasn’t normally timid when it came to talking about the ways of men and women. Only around her did he avoid the subject.
“The stable looks so nice.” Elizabeth offered at length. “Mistress Ford just told me how much she approved of our work.”
Dean grinned and wandered back into the stable. Elizabeth followed.
“You trying to make up for yelling at me?” he teased.
Elizabeth thought. “Perhaps.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it. I deserved it.” Dean picked up a little hooked tool and entered a stall. “This dummy here picked up a rock in his hoof.” he explained indicating the horse. “I gotta get it out before he goes lame.”
Dean chuckled. “You know, Elizabeth, you got a lot of guts to chew me out like you did. I mean the way you think I’m some powerful sorcerer.”
“But you are.”
“I got no more magical powers than you got.”
Elizabeth frowned. “But you work such powerful magic.”
“Do I have any here? All I got is my iPhone, and you can work that. Believe me, if I had half the magic powers you think I got, I’d be using them.”
“I guess. It just seems so difficult to understand.”
“Things change, Elizabeth.” Dean grunted as he worked the tool around the wedged-in rock. “People learn things. The dress you’re wearing wasn’t always in style, was it?”
“No. My mother told me about the ruffs the great lords and ladies used to wear around their necks.”
“Do they wear ruffs now?”
“There you have it.” The rock tumbled from the horse’s foot. “And there we have this. Things are a lot more complicated in the twentieth century. But there are some things that never change, like people.”
“Like Master Barton?” Elizabeth teased.
“Yeah, like him.” Dean tried to sound cool, and just barely failed.
“If you wanna play that way,” Dean returned, equally merry. “There’s a young lady in the village I’ve got my eye on, also. In fact, I’m thinking of paying her a visit next Sunday.”
“Who?” asked Elizabeth, more disconcerted than she wished.
“I’m not telling.” Dean grinned. He was enormously pleased he’d hit home.
“Hm!” Elizabeth snorted. “I don’t think you do have your eye on somebody.”
“Oh, yes, you do think so. You’re not going to get her name out of me that way.”
She turned on him. “That’s not fair!”
“Oh, yeah, then why is fair for you to tease me that way, huh? I know damn well you can’t stand Thomas Barton.”
Elizabeth shrugged. She didn’t know how to tell Dean she just wanted him, and would do whatever she could to keep his interest in her.
“We don’t have to be that petty, do we?” Dean asked.
“No. I don’t want to,” Elizabeth whispered.
It seemed as if Dean was about to move toward her, but he didn’t.
“Yeah, well, I don’t either,” he said. “You know, you’re about the only person I can really talk to, here or back home.”
“Robin said you had many friends.”
“Not many I can really talk to. Guys just don’t talk that way, and all the girls I know, well, they’re either too selfish to care, or they’re too dumb, and all the smart ones, they put me down because I act so stupid sometimes.”
“You just act stupid, Dean, you’re not.”
“Yeah, I know. Maybe I should live up to my potential more. I don’t know.”
Elizabeth shrugged. “At least this way you don’t have to compete with Robin.”
Dean laughed. “You know, that’s why I can talk to you. I figure you got me pegged already, right? So why hold back?”
“I like talking to you, too.” Elizabeth felt her face warm up.
“You do? Why?”
“Well.” Elizabeth swallowed. “I can tell you what I think. You and Robin don’t get mad when I say what I’m thinking. And you.” She blushed even harder. “Well, Robin is very kind, and I really like her, but she doesn’t understand when I get afraid of your magic. She tries very hard to, but she likes it so much, it makes her feel bad when I don’t like it. You understand. And while Robin’s funny in a quiet way, you tease me and we have fun.”
And Dean was a man and Robin wasn’t, but Elizabeth couldn’t quite bring herself to say it. She sighed.
“I shouldn’t speak as if I don’t like Robin as much as I like you. Because I do. It’s just different.”
Dean nodded. “Oh, I know. It’s like I love my mom, but I wouldn’t want to marry her. You like different people different ways. Like how you love your mom. Oh. Maybe I shouldn’t talk about your family. You must miss them a lot.”
Elizabeth shrugged. “In some ways. My mother did die when I was thirteen, and I’ve lost two brothers and a sister to death. People die very easily. One gets used to the idea, and one goes on. When I left with Roger, I knew I wouldn’t see my family again. They are as good as dead to me, and I am dead to them.”
Elizabeth shrugged. Dean had no idea how gruesome it really had been, and Elizabeth didn’t want him to know.
“I suppose it is gruesome,” she said. “But then, we shall all die. I can’t say I look forward to it. But it’s a part of life. One must expect to see many people die in the course of a lifetime.”
“I don’t know.” Dean sighed. “I’ve lived twenty-one years, and I’ve only been to one funeral, and only three people that I’ve known have died. Of course, people live longer in my time. We talked about that once in a class I had in college. In
our culture, death is almost a taboo subject. In yours, it’s just a natural part of life. That’s weird.”
“Well, we don’t like dwelling on it.” Elizabeth laughed merrily and playfully shoved him.
Dean reached around and sent a handful of straw flying into Elizabeth’s face.
“Dean!” Elizabeth squealed. She threw a handful at Dean.
Dean grabbed another handful, and chased after her with it. He caught her near the door and stuffed the straw down her back while she pushed several straws down his front.
“Hey!” Dean yelped.
“Indeed, it is!” Elizabeth returned, trying to retrieve the straws from her back. “It itches, too.”
Dean turned her around to tease her some more. But as he looked at her, he gently put his hand to her chin. Without quite thinking what he was doing, he kissed her mouth. She returned it, too. For an innocent girl, she had one hell of a kiss. Then again, Dean had known other virgins who led guys on without realizing what they were doing, just like Elizabeth.
As they pulled apart, Dean started.
“That was nice.” Elizabeth whispered, and reached for more.
Dean pulled away. “Yeah, it was. Look, I— I better get back to work. Look at all this straw all over.” He sighed.
Elizabeth sniffed and fought back her tears.
“Elizabeth,” Dean groaned. “It was nice! Just a little too nice. Um. I don’t wanta get carried away. That wouldn’t be right. You’re just too nice to do that to. You’d better get back to the kitchen.”
“Oh, all right.” Dean bent and quickly kissed her mouth again. “But only a little, every now and then. You gotta be careful, kid. You’d better get going. I think I hear Mistress Ford calling.”
Elizabeth sighed, grabbed the bucket and stomped off. Dean was getting more puzzling by the minute. Why did he insist on treating her as if she were some fragile piece of pottery? Granted, women did have strong passions and desires, especially once woken in the marriage bed. Yet most men found that as an excuse to shun her or push her closer to temptation. Dean seemed to think she needed protecting, worse yet, from himself, as if his passions were at least as strong as hers. That was ridiculous. Everyone knew that men were in command of their desires.
Robin, working in the garden, hadn’t seen Dean and Elizabeth’s play. But she did see Elizabeth stomping off back into the inn and wondered about it. Robin didn’t have long to ponder, however.
The rumble of a disturbance in the village softly floated into hearing, accompanied by the sound of running feet.
“Master Parker! Master Parker!” The boy was about 10 years old, and although Robin didn’t know his name, she was fairly sure his father was a regular at the inn. “It’s the pastor, Master Parker. Mistress Blethen wants your mistress to come quickly.”
“Of course.” Robin propped her rake against the inn wall and hurried into the kitchen.
“Where’s Mistress Ford?” she asked Elizabeth.
“In the common room, I believe.” Elizabeth followed Robin into the common room.
Robin found Mistress Ford there and explained the errand.
“Yes, we’d better go immediately,” Mistress Ford said. “Have Dean stay to keep care of the guests, but Elizabeth, you and Robin had better come with me.”
Robin ran out to the stable to tell Dean what was going on. The boy danced impatiently in the yard.
Mistress Ford swept out of the inn. “Young Master Thomas, you say it’s the pastor?”
“Yes, Mistress. He’s gotten much worse. Mistress Blethen wouldn’t say how bad, but she fears for him.”
The party hurried into the village to the pastor’s house. His wife sat in the common room weeping and surrounded by village women. Mistress Blethen stood at the top of a tiny stairway which led to the one-room upper story. Mistress Ford did not hesitate and went up the stairs. Mistress Blethen stepped aside to let them in the room, but it was clear it was too late.
The pastor lay in bed, his face contorted, but his eyes had been closed. Robin felt her stomach twist at being so close to death for the first time in her life. The others took the body in stride.
“Oh no,” sighed Mistress Ford. “I came as fast as I could.”
“There was nothing to be done,” Mistress Blethen said. “He was having seizures. I thought it was fever at first, but he had almost none. It was probably a brain fit. He’s had them before.”
Robin looked around the room, anywhere but at the body. The glint of a something small and glassy on the floor near the door caught her eye. It was a glass vial without a stopper. But before she could investigate, Mistress Ford directed her to fetch Master Greenfield so that letters could be written to the bishop and a neighboring pastor so that the funeral could be held. By the time Robin returned, the small vial was gone and the room filled with women preparing the body.
The villagers all turned out for the funeral the next day. The pastor may not have been well-loved, but he was respected and those who differed with him were decent enough not to say anything.
The bishop’s reply came after the following Sunday. It had been an awkward day because the neighboring pastor had to first conduct services in his parish and then make the hour’s ride to Downleigh and conduct services there, which made services late, indeed. Two days later, a messenger rode into the inn with a letter from the bishop.
Master Greenfield read the letter to the villagers in the church, who were quite thrilled to hear that Pastor James Middleton would be the new pastor, but that his arrival would be delayed by some weeks due to his need to discharge some final matters in London first. His credentials meant nothing to Robin, but the villagers seemed impressed, and the mood in the village lightened considerably.
Life once again settled into calm regularity. The weather grew somewhat warmer, although rain was a common event. It had felt strange and disorienting, at first, not to be aware of the hours and minutes and the date, especially for Robin. Then even she began to be less aware of the calendar and more in tune with the ebbing of spring into the early summer.
As the day of the new pastor’s expected arrival grew closer, a soft ripple of anticipation began to fill the village. One night, a couple weeks before the new pastor’s expected arrival, things got rowdier than usual, although it was all in good fun. But a couple tankards were cracked and Master Smith took them home with him, promising them back in two days.
The two days stretched into a week before Mistress Ford asked Robin to go into the village to get them.
“He promised me I should have them today,” Mistress Ford said.
“And how much did you agree to pay him?” Robin asked, going to the money box.
Mistress Ford chuckled. “Sixpence and not a hapenny more.”
Robin was in high spirits as she approached the tinker’s house. No one was in the yard, although the tinker’s workbench looked as though it had been recently occupied. Robin knocked on the door.
To her surprise, young Mistress Mary Smith came out.
“Oh, good day, Master Parker,” she said smiling slyly.
“Is your father here? I’ve come for Mistress Ford’s tankards.” Robin began to feel uncomfortable, but she couldn’t quite figure out why.
Then Mistress Smith shifted the top half of her body suggestively.
“I’ll fetch him.” She turned with a flounce and went into the house.
Robin swallowed. The stout tinker appeared quickly, tankards in hand.
“Good day, Master Parker,” he asked heartily. “Any news for us?”
“Uh, no. I’ve come for Mistress Ford’s tankards.”
“Nothing else?” Master Smith seemed to be expecting something.
Young Mistress Smith appeared again in the doorway with her coy, suggestive smile.
“You’ve met my daughter?” Master Smith asked, nodding at her.
Master Smith moved in closer to Robin. “Mistress Ford gives a good account of your work.”
“That’s very kind of her.” Robin squirmed. She had a bad feeling she knew where this was heading and was hoping against hope she was wrong.
“My daughter likes you,” Master Smith said, giving the tankards a final quick polish. “That’s important to me, you know. And she’s at a good age for marrying.”
“Is she?” Robin barely squeaked. “She’ll make some young man very lucky.”
“Yes, she will.” Master Smith held up the tankards and inspected them. “Those are very nice mends if I say so, myself.” He looked at Robin. “Why don’t we just tell Mistress Ford that I took the sixpence and you keep it for yourself?”
Robin shook her head. “I’ll just take the tankards and here’s your money. Thank you, sir.”
Robin walked away, if only to keep what little dignity she felt she had left. All the while, though, she felt Mistress Smith’s eyes following her as she returned down the road to the inn. Robin made a point of not looking, but she was fairly certain that Mistress Smith was mostly watching her butt.
Robin found the kitchen empty when she returned, as was the common room. Feeling far too uncomfortable to question it, she put the tankards in the common room chest, and went back to the garden to sulk.
Only as she got outside, she saw Mistress Ford coming into the yard from the creek.
“Is something wrong?” Robin asked.
Mistress Ford sighed. “My good master wandered off this afternoon. We’ve only just found him.”
“Is he all right?”
“Of course.” Mistress Ford rolled her eyes skyward. “Divine Providence has again seen to his care. I suppose I should be grateful.”
Robin looked at her. “It must be very difficult for you.”
Mistress Ford shook her head. “These days it’s no worse than caring for an infant. I should have liked to have borne children, but not having them makes it much easier to care for him and the inn. Heaven knows, I’ve seen the worst of it from him. The beatings were much worse when we were younger and he was occasionally sober. I’m alive today because he was drunk far more often than not. I like him better drunk. He’s much easier to handle.”
“I suppose,” said Robin.
“Much easier. For example, if he lays claim to my obedience, he forgets that he has a minute later.” Mistress Ford returned to the kitchen chuckling.
Robin gazed after her, suddenly realizing that Mistress Ford enjoyed a level of freedom and ownership that most women of her time did not.
A moment later, Dean came up from behind the yard, carrying the comatose body of Master Ford.
“Is he okay?” Robin asked.
“Yeah, just sleeping it off.” Dean wrinkled his nose. “Man, he stinks. We had homeless people in the detox unit that smelled better than he does.”
“Huh? What detox unit?”
“The one I volunteered in a couple years back,” Dean said. “Because I was applying to med school. You gotta show that you’re, like, serious about being a doctor on the applications. So you work for a doctor somehow or volunteer. I took enough of my buddies to the detox unit, I figured I might as well volunteer there.”
“Oh.” Robin wasn’t sure if she admired Dean for volunteering or was appalled by his ultimately self-serving approach. “But you’re not going to med school.”
Dean laughed. “No, duh. Being a medical doctor was Mom’s idea. But I found out last year I could still do the research I wanted to do on addictive diseases as a psychologist, which is what I wanted to do in the first place.”
“You? A shrink?” Robin tried not to gape and failed.
“Yeah, specializing in drug and alcohol rehab. I’ve planning on doing that since my friend Eddie OD’d.” Dean grinned as he pushed past her toward the house. “And you thought I was slumming it with my psych major.”
“Well, yeah. I apologize.” Robin glanced toward the stream. “Where’s Elizabeth?”
Dean looked around. “Out looking still. She should be coming back soon.”
And, indeed, Elizabeth was. She clucked briefly over Master Ford, then returned to the kitchen and her work.
That night, Robin began to sense a certain uneasiness among the younger men at the inn. Or rather, she finally put her finger on the unease that she realized had been building for a week or so. A couple of the guys were giving her the evil eye and it suddenly struck Robin that she’d seen them trailing after young Mistress Smith after Sunday services.
Not surprisingly, after the two and their friends had drunk up enough courage, they approached Robin.
“Good evening, neighbors,” Robin said to the five young men with far more cheer than she felt. “Another round?”
“Mistress Smith has her eye on you,” said the oldest around the gaps in his teeth.
“And it shall do her no good, I assure you,” said Robin mildly. “I have no interest in Mistress Mary Smith.”
“And why not?” snarled a second young man. “Aren’t our girls good enough for you?”
Robin swallowed. “They are the finest anywhere.” She suddenly smiled. “But am I good enough for them? I think not. They deserve fine, strapping young men like you whom they’ve known all their lives. Woo to your heart’s content, neighbors. In fact, I’ll buy the next round and we’ll drink to your success.”
The young men seemed mollified for the moment, although Robin was hard pressed to say whether it was her words or the presence of Dean’s more significant bulk that did the trick.
Either way, Robin hoped that Mistress Ford had missed the scene. But the older woman had not, not surprisingly since she’d heard the talk that Mistress Mary Smith had her eye on the tapster. As soon as the common room was empty, Mistress Ford tapped Robin on the shoulder.
“Masters Thomas and James,” Mistress Ford asked, not quite casually.
“It’s fine,” said Robin quickly.
“It’s Mistress Mary Smith.”
Robin blushed and swallowed. “She seems to want to marry me.”
“Ah.” Mistress Ford waited patiently. She didn’t wait long.
“It’s not like I want to marry her. Anything but. It’s just Master Smith was pretty emphatic about the idea, and… And…” Robin swallowed again, trying to control her shaking.
“So there is an offer.” Mistress Ford pursed her lips.
“Can’t you say you’ll fire me if I get married?” Robin asked.
“That wouldn’t do any good.” Mistress Ford sighed. “I’ve a feeling Master Smith is planning on taking you in as an apprentice. Why don’t you want to marry her? Is there someone else?”
“No. Yes!” Robin smiled hopefully. “I’m betrothed to her. I promised I’d come back when I’d made my fortune.”
Robin watched Mistress Ford as the older woman smiled her shrewd smile and shook her head. “Not a good enough story, huh?”
“For some, perhaps, but not for Master Smith,” Mistress Ford said. “He won’t care about past promises. You haven’t made any to him, have you?”
“Not even close. He didn’t want to take the money for the tankards, said we should tell you it did cost sixpence, and I would keep it. I gave it to him and got out of there.”
“I sympathize,” Mistress Ford said. “Mistress Smith has always been a forward, willful thing. She’ll be no better than an old scold. I warrant you. And lazy, too.”
“They can’t trap me into marrying her, can they?” Robin asked.
“No,” said Mistress Ford. “At least, not easily. But don’t give them the slightest opportunity. Avoid Mistress Smith at all costs. Beyond that, there really isn’t much you can do until they force the issue. We’ll take it as it comes. In any case, I have no intention of losing my tapster, or having that girl under my roof.”
“Let’s just hope he’s not rich enough to build us a house,” Robin grumbled.
The next evening, Farmer Whitby approached Robin.
“Hullo, tapster,” he said with a smug smile on his face.
“Shall I fill your tankard?” Robin started. “Oh, it’s full.”
Master Whitby grinned, his teeth half rotted and his breath sour. “I hear you’re to be married soon.”
Robin smiled. “Strange. I haven’t.”
“Mistress Mary Smith, the tinker’s daughter, she’s quite pretty, isn’t she?”
Robin shifted. Elizabeth came up just in time to hear the last remark, and giggled. Robin glared at her. She’d told Elizabeth and Dean what had happened at the tinker’s house that morning. Dean found the whole episode hysterical, but Elizabeth, at least, had sympathized. Robin glared at her.
“Yes, she is,” Robin said to Whitby.
Whitby belched then sniggered. “A charming lass. I assume you have, uh, tried her charms, as they say?”
Dean snickered loudly as Robin gasped.
“I have not!” she snapped.
“My brother has no choice but to behave himself,” Dean said, laughing.
“You’re going to wait for the wedding?” Farmer Whitby pressed, highly amused.
“There will be no wedding,” Robin insisted. “Where did you hear that I was marrying her?”
“From the bride, herself, and her father.” The farmer moved in closer. “To be truthful, he doesn’t fancy you much, but his daughter’s heart is set, and what she wants, she gets.”
“That’s what she thinks,” Dean snickered again and swaggered off before Robin could snap at him.
“They are both mistaken,” Robin replied. “I have made no promises, and I have no intention of doing so. I don’t even like the girl that much.”
Farmer Whitby just laughed, and moved off. A few minutes later, Robin saw Mistress Ford talking to him. She wondered what they were saying. As they were closing down, Mistress Ford told her.
“It seems the good Farmer Whitby is doing his best to spread the Smith’s rumor about,” the matron said. “His kin have always been troublemakers. Anything to get a fight going, as long as they’re not in it.”
“Well, I have no intention of letting it get violent,” said Robin.
“You may not have a choice,” sighed Mistress Ford. “As if there isn’t enough tension in this village as it is.”
The next two days were thick and not only with political tension and anticipation. The weather turned very humid and cloudy. Afternoon showers were a way of life. But this was different. The rain did not come, and the weather was particularly warm, almost eighty degrees, Robin guestimated.
That night at the inn the men complained about the strange heaviness in the air. A storm was due, and it felt like a bad one. The next day, the rain still did not come. That night the tension was even worse. Dean broke up several small fights, ejecting the combatants into the street.
The common room emptied earlier than usual, much to Robin’s relief. The humidity had left her feeling tired and worn, as it had everyone else.
“This may sound terribly lazy,” Robin yawned. “But why don’t we just leave the tables up tonight?”
Mistress Ford didn’t get a chance to answer. Running footsteps on the road outside interrupted them and the door burst open.
“Mistress Ford!” a young boy gasped. “Please, come quickly, it’s my mother’s time.”
“Mistress Martin?” Mistress Ford paused in wonder. “It’s too soon. Well, never mind. I’ll come. You’ve no older sisters to help. Is Mistress Blethen come?”
“Yes, mistress. I just sent her. She said to send for you and Mistress Wynford.”
Mistress Ford sighed, but gathered herself together and looked at Elizabeth.
“We must go,” Mistress Ford said. She turned to the boy. “Robert, did you run here by yourself?”
“Yes,” he replied. “Father thought it best to stay with Mother.”
“He’s probably panicking her,” Mistress Ford muttered. She looked around and her eye fell on Robin. “Come with us. He’ll need someone to wait with him. Hurry now. Mistress Martin births fast.”
Dean ended up going, too. He and Robin never saw Mistress Martin. She was in the second room of the little two room house, and curtains in the doorway closed it off. As soon as Mistress Ford entered the second room, Master Martin left.
Their three other small children besides Robert slept on the floor. Robert soon fell asleep also. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Elizabeth emerged suddenly.
“Dean,” she said, seeing him first. “Take this bucket and get some water from the well.”
Dean grabbed the bucket and hurried out.
Elizabeth went rummaging among the kitchen tools. “Ah, a good, sharp knife.”
Taking the knife, she returned to the room. Thunder rumbled again, this time closer.
“It’s not a good sign.” said Master Martin.
Robin shrugged. She hoped it would rain soon. Dean returned with the water. He was about to enter the back room when Robin held him back. Instead she called for Elizabeth. She emerged and took the bucket.
Lightening flashed and the thunder came close on its heels. Dean jumped. Thunderstorms were very infrequent in Southern California. Robin, who had lived on the East Coast for several years through college, was more accustomed to them.
Even more eerie than the weather, were the moans that rose and fell in the other room. Robin knew what was going on, but the cries were still nerve-racking.
Robin watched Master Martin for his reaction. He’d been through it at least four times already. The minutes dragged by.
The storm’s intensity increased with a lightening flash every two minutes, and the thunder came faster and faster. The wind kicked in, but still no rain. An hour passed, then another. The good farmer sighed.
“It doesn’t go well.” he said.
The cries came thick and fast. Dean was antsy. Between the moaning and the thunder, Robin marveled that the children did not wake up. Then she heard low anxious murmurs from the bedroom underneath the cries. In the next instant, a brilliant flash concurrent with thunder signaled a strike in the village.
The lightening continued, still very close, and almost continuous. Still the rain would not come. The thunder boomed, muffling Mistress Martin’s cries. The children stirred, but did not wake.
Outside, there were the sounds of people running and yelling. Dean went to the door and looked out.
“A house is on fire!” he exclaimed softly.
Both Robin and Master Martin started. In the second room, Mistress Martin let out one long last yell. There was a brief silence, then the sound of an infant’s first cries. The rain fell, pouring down at full strength.
Dean ran to see if he could help at the house, which turned out to be Master Smith’s. Five minutes later, Elizabeth appeared in the curtained doorway, drained and bloodstained.
“It’s a boy,” she said breathing heavily. “A fine, strong boy.”
She stepped back to admit Master Martin and Robin. Mistress Martin lay in the bed looking very weak and drawn. The tiny infant suckled at her breast.
The sudden downpour drowned the fire at the tinker’s house. Little damage had been done, as the village discovered the next day. Mistress Ford and company wearily made their way home in the wet. At the inn, they discovered two leaks in the roof, unfortunately in guests’ rooms. Already exhausted, Robin made a huge fire in the common room and she and Dean got further soaked bringing in straw from the stable for beds for the unlucky men.
Dawn was only an hour off when she and Dean finally toppled into a pile of straw of their own near the fire, and fell asleep.