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.

Anne Louise Bannon

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