The clothes had been the hardest part. Robin made contact with a historical re-enactor through an e-mail friend of hers. The re-enactor helped her find outfits through her group but was remarkably picky about authenticity. Oddly enough, Elizabeth wasn’t, and in fact pronounced several doublets and breeches as workable that the re-enactor turned her nose up at.
Dean, for his part, complained incessantly and tried again and again to interest Elizabeth in modern life. Again and again, Elizabeth reacted in fear or distaste. She refused to flush a toilet, although she liked toilet paper once she got the hang of it. Dean’s favorite alternative rock and hip-hop groups made her shudder. She refused to wear any less than three layers of clothes and clung tenaciously to her stays. Daily showers were a struggle. Robin and Dean had to be very sure to keep her away from television sets because the “elves in the box” would start her screaming. And while getting her on the Underground was difficult enough, the only thing worse was driving the magic carriage.
Even eating was difficult. Elizabeth would not eat anything that came in a Styrofoam container because she hated the feel of the foam. That made ordering food in almost impossible. But getting her through the streets to restaurants was pretty much running the poor girl through a gantlet of terrors.
The worse part was that Robin insisted the three stay moving to make it harder for Roger to track them. Furthermore, Elizabeth begged not to be left alone in whatever hotel room they were in after the first day because the phone had rung and scared her.
Still, Dean persisted, but as the two weeks wore on, his protests became less strident.
Finally, Robin was satisfied. The night before the three were to leave, she had hers and Dean’s luggage shipped to her office. All they had that night was what they could carry in the two homespun bags they would bring with them into the past.
The next morning, Dean made one last pro forma protest as he tested his saber.
“Are you sure about this, Robin?” he asked, swishing the sword through the air as he lunged forward.
“Put that damn thing down before you hurt one of us.” Like her brother, Robin wore a shirt, breeches, doublet, boots, wide belt and plain, dark cavalier hat.
“I’m not going to hurt anybody,” Dean grumbled, sheathing his sword nonetheless.
Robin tried not to groan. “Look, Dean, the only reason we’re carrying weapons is that we’d get slaughtered without them. With any luck at all, we won’t have to use them. Better yet, let’s try not to.” She looked over at Elizabeth and back at Dean. “Are you two ready?”
“I am,” said Elizabeth, her eyes shining with joy.
“I s’pose,” Dean grumbled as he picked up his bag.
Robin put the room key on the bureau, then, taking a deep breath, picked up the time machine and her bag. “Okay. We should all be touching.”
She waited for Dean and Elizabeth put their hands on each of her shoulders, then focused her mind on the geographic coordinates and date in early spring 1642 that she wanted.
The bright white light was blinding, and the awful sucking sensation almost caused Robin to cry out. Just as she was certain she could bear it no longer, she found herself gasping in the middle of a muddy road surrounded on both sides by a grove of trees.
Dean and Elizabeth still had their hands on her shoulders and gasped as well.
“Why didn’t you tell me about that sucking part?” Dean groaned as he fell away from his sister. He stumbled for a moment, then looked around. “Woh.”
Robin nodded. The utter quiet was startling. Birds sang and a soft breeze rustled the trees. But completely absent was any sort of mechanized roar from airplanes, cars in the distance, anything.
“This is, like, weird, man,” Dean said. “It’s quiet.”
“Your world is terribly noisy,” Elizabeth said.
“You sure we’re in the right place?” Dean asked.
Robin hid the time machine in her sack. “Well, we’ll find out soon enough. Where’s the sun?”
“Over there.” Elizabeth pointed. “Are we far from King’s Church on Rother?”
“Far enough,” Robin replied. “We should be in Essex, about three miles from a village called Downleigh.”
“Essex?” Elizabeth asked. “Why there?”
“It’s got a similar economy to Kent, and is far enough away we won’t be running into anybody you know,” Robin replied.
She decided not to add that with the English Civil War in their very near future, she had made a point of going where the fighting wouldn’t be.
She looked around. “Let’s see, it feels like late morning, so the machine got that part right. So, if the sun’s over there, then that’s east and the direction we want to go.”
Elizabeth chuckled, both amused and puzzled by Robin’s labored reasoning of something she knew almost instinctively.
The three set off. About fifteen minutes into the walk, Dean sighed.
“It’s sure a long way,” he grumbled another fifteen minutes later. “Are you sure you know where we are, Robin? We should have walked three miles by now.”
“We’ve not even walked two,” Elizabeth said.
“Huh?” Dean groaned.
“Dean, don’t be such a wuss,” Robin said. “It just takes longer because we’re walking.”
“I know that,” Dean retorted.
“Yeah, and when was the last time you walked further than five parking spaces from anywhere? Geez, Dean, if the mall lot is half full, you insist on using the valet.”
“Hey, I work out.”
Elizabeth shrugged. “This is not a bad distance. It was five miles to the village from my father’s holding and I walked there every other morning.”
“Remember our magic carriages, Elizabeth?” Robin said. “We’re used to getting a lot further a lot faster.”
The glade had quickly given way to pasture and farmland. Paths led into the rolling fields, and the odd distant chimney could be seen behind the hills and hedges. Eventually, from the top of a rise, they first saw the village. It was little more than a scattering of half-timbered buildings strung along either side of the road. A gray stone church sat at the far end.
As they got closer, they noted a much larger house sitting at the edge of the village that had a sign with a faded picture of a bear and a stag hanging over the door.
“That’s the inn,” said Elizabeth.
She and Robin looked at each other and both took a deep breath.
Dean held Robin back. “Do we have any money?”
“No,” Robin replied calmly.
“Then how are we going to pay for it?”
“We’ll work. Now, do you remember our story?”
Elizabeth was already walking up to the door.
The inn was a two-storied house, white with dark timbers. The matching stable stood back from the road. Small chickens ran about everywhere, and behind the stable, a small cow grazed. Dean looked puzzled, and even Robin was taken aback at the animals’ small size, even though she’d remembered that conventional breeding techniques were for the most part unheard of.
Abandoning the door, Elizabeth led the way around to the side of the house, where an older matron presided over a brick oven. The woman looked up as they approached.
“You’ll be wanting rooms?” she asked in a tired voice.
“Please, mistress,” said Robin. “We’ve run into some bad luck on the road. Bandits. We barely escaped with our lives and our weapons. But they got all our money. Might we exchange some work for a night’s lodging?”
“Bandits, you say.” The woman looked them over carefully. “Well, lazy brutes they must have been with you not having a scratch on you.”
“We were fortunate,” Robin said, silently cursing herself for forgetting that detail.
“Indeed. Where are you headed?”
“Where our fortunes take us,” Robin answered. “My brother Dean and I have four older brothers. Our father has nothing for us. We have our cousin with us because a certain baron took her father’s holding when he died and she had no protection. We’re looking for a good situation for her.”
The matron lifted an eyebrow. “Indeed. Can you cook?”
“That I can and well, too,” replied Elizabeth.
The matron turned on Robin and Dean. “And you young men. After adventure in the king’s army?”
“Not really,” Robin replied quickly. “Even if we were, we’d want to be sure our cousin was well placed and safe first.”
The matron picked up her apron and wiped her hands. She was well-padded, but not fat, with wisps of gray and brown hair slipping from her veil and cap. Her teeth were mostly sound, what Robin could see of them, and her hands were rough and red.
“Well, fortune is with you,” the matron said. “My man and my girl ran off last week, leaving me alone. I might as well take all three of you. There’ll be wages to be had if you work well. I am Anne Ford.”
“I am Elizabeth Wynford,” she said curtseying. “And my cousins are Robin and Dean Parker.”
“Dean?” Mistress Ford asked.
“Dick, actually,” Robin said. “But we had a sister who could not say Dick and called him Dean, and the name stuck.”
Mistress Ford laughed. “Good enough. You two go tend the stable. We’ve a merchant in town, and I want his horse fed and groomed promptly.”
“Yes, Mistress,” Robin said, suddenly reluctant.
Dean, however, headed for the stables in high spirits.
“Woh, that was easy,” he said once they were there. “I figured we’d be walking for weeks before we found someplace to put Elizabeth.”
“I know.” Robin sighed. “I hope Mistress Ford isn’t setting Elizabeth up to service the guests.” She looked back at the house. Elizabeth had taken over at the oven and seemed happy enough.
“That’s bogus. I guess we’ll have to stick around for a while, huh?” A horse snorted and Dean grinned. “I’m being paged.”
He went over to the dark brown animal and slapped its neck. “Boy, you sure are small, fella. Hey, Robin, you see any curry brushes around? Oh, wait, here it is.”
Robin watched, slightly shocked. But Dean had always been good around animals and had taken horseback riding lessons when they were kids. Sighing, she looked around for a rake, found it and began raking out the foul straw and droppings.
Elizabeth appeared an hour or so later with bread and cheese for lunch.
“So, how is Mistress Ford?” Robin asked, trying to sound casual.
“Very kind,” said Elizabeth happily.
“You don’t think she’s, uh, trying to set you up as…”
Elizabeth laughed loudly. “No! In fact, she gave me a very stern lecture indeed. If I so much as smile too kindly at a guest, she’ll have me whipped. She runs a good inn and would not for the world risk the bad opinion of our neighbors. She’s a godly woman, I assure you. But eat quickly. We’ve the ale to make and much else to be done.”
“Ale?” asked Dean. “But I don’t know how to make that.”
“Mistress Ford says she’ll teach us,” Elizabeth replied. “She also told me to be wary of Master Ford and not give him any.”
“Master Ford?” Robin asked.
Elizabeth nodded and rolled her eyes. “He’s asleep next to the fireplace in the kitchen. Mistress Ford said nothing, but I could smell the drunkenness on him. Poor woman, saddled with a husband like that. It’s no wonder they haven’t any children. He probably hasn’t gotten hard in years.”
“Elizabeth!” Dean gasped.
Elizabeth shrugged. “It’s probably a blessing for her that he can’t.”
“We’ll have to keep an eye on him, I guess,” Robin sighed.
“He’ll get his share of ale,” Elizabeth said with a snort. “They always do. But he’ll not get any from me.”
The ale making went well. It was not a complicated process. First, they roasted barley grains and brewed them, adding hops, then put the cooled wort into a small keg, which still had caked on yeast on its staves. As Dean and Robin carefully brought the new keg down to the little cellar and fetched up the one that would be tapped that night, a king’s messenger rode up and requested a room.
Dean stabled the horse while Elizabeth went after a chicken and wrung its neck. Robin got the rake and swept the rotting straw out of the common room.
Dean was sent down to the nearby river to check the traps there. Robin went to work setting up the trestles and boards to make tables in the common room. Her arms feeling like wet spaghetti, Robin spread fresh hay over the old. The musty room filled with the smell of hay. It was heavy work and Robin wondered how sore she’d be the next morning as she wandered into the kitchen.
Dean sauntered in with two dead rabbits.
“We only got two,” he announced, holding them up. “They’re kind of scrawny, too.”
“Dean, you fool!” Elizabeth snatched the animals and hid them under her apron. She glanced upstairs. “Don’t you realize there’s a king’s messenger here?”
“What did I do wrong?” Dean asked.
“Dean,” Robin explained, “All game is owned by the King.”
Robin tried not to sigh. “It’s illegal to hunt. Your catch is technically contraband.”
“That’s a dumb law.” Dean shrugged.
“Nonetheless,” said Elizabeth. “You don’t want to let a king’s officer see that you have broken it.”
“It’s like letting a police officer see your stash,” Robin added.
Dean glared. “Hey, I’m not that stupid.”
Elizabeth hid the rabbits under a pan. “I’ll make a pie later. Robin, why don’t you see if Mistress Ford needs anything else? I’ll have Dean finish helping me here.”
Robin nodded and left. Dean would not be able to be left alone for one minute. Although Robin had briefed him extensively before they had left, she had a bad feeling precious little had sunk in.
They finally got to eat supper just as the sun began its last descent to the horizon. There wasn’t much and Dean complained relentlessly.
“Why don’t we get any of that chicken?” he demanded, eyeing the small bird on the spit before the fire.
“It’s for the king’s messenger,” sighed Elizabeth.
“He’ll probably hog the whole thing for himself,” Dean grumbled.
“That’s his prerogative,” Robin replied. “You’ve got food. Quit complaining.”
“You call this food?” Dean held up a spoonful of watery broth with a limp bit of cabbage leaf dribbling off.
“You call McDonald’s food.”
“This isn’t a meal. Watery soup, bread, and cheese.”
“It’s good soup!” Elizabeth protested. “Mistress Ford has been very generous. You’ve got more than enough to eat.”
“Dean, what we’re eating is a full three-course meal for most people in this time,” Robin said.
“You’re kidding.” Dean looked at Elizabeth. “Is this what you ate all the time?”
“Usually less,” Elizabeth replied. “Mistress Ford, fortunately, has a very prosperous inn. We’ll see several villagers after the sun is down.”
Dean opened his mouth to complain again, but not before Robin kicked him under the table. He scowled but remained silent. Robin went back to her own soup. It wasn’t very substantial and even after they’d eaten, her belly gurgled with emptiness.
They had to eat quickly. The village men were already arriving, as they usually did, to pass the evening gossiping and drinking the strong, dark ale.
Mistress Ford watched Robin pull a draft from the keg and assigned her tapping duties. Dean was asked to keep order, and Elizabeth served. Mistress Ford kept a close watch on the money box and on her errant husband, who nonetheless got a solid snootfull. Robin could see the small, wizened, toothless man drinking from others’ tankards when they weren’t looking.
It was a busier night than usual, as Robin later found out. The twenty-odd villagers that filled the common room had come to hear what news there might be from the king’s messenger. The men seemed to have strong Royalist leanings, which Robin thought odd because her research had shown that Essex had been strongly Parliamentarian during the English Civil War. That was the other reason Robin had chosen it. Might as well get Elizabeth established someplace that supported what would be the winning side when the fighting got going.
Fortunately, it was still only the spring of 1642, and the fighting wouldn’t actually start until that fall, although King Charles I would officially start the war in August. But that was still in the future, Robin had to remind herself, and for the time being among the villagers, the current political scene was only nominally of interest. The king’s messenger didn’t have much to say and retired early. But the rest of the villagers made an evening of it, with a small group gathered around the merchant, hungrier for local gossip than anything the merchant had to offer in terms of goods.
Dean sat next to the keg, watching everyone with a keen eye. Robin filled tankard after tankard as Elizabeth ran back and forth almost frantically. The men were putting it away heartily, which made Robin wonder. The strong ale had made hers and Dean’s heads reel earlier that afternoon, but presumably, these men were used to the strong drink.
It was getting late when the merchant ambled over to Robin.
“Tapster, be a good man and re-fill my tankard,” he said with an easy grin. “I gave the maid a shilling a while back and haven’t drunk it up yet.”
Elizabeth popped up behind him and shook her head. “Don’t fill it until he’s paid me the three pennies he already owes me.”
The merchant laughed. “Girl, I was the one who gave you the shilling.”
“I’m afraid not, sir.”
This did not please the merchant. He looked at Robin and Dean in disbelief.
“The maid is confused,” he said forcefully. “I know what I gave her.”
“Elizabeth?” Robin asked.
“It was the king’s messenger that gave me the shilling,” Elizabeth replied. “I showed it to Mistress Ford.”
She glanced at Dean and Robin a little nervously, as if she didn’t expect them to believe her.
“Hey, buddy, if Elizabeth says you didn’t give her the shilling, I’ll trust her sooner than I’d trust you,” said Dean, who hadn’t noticed Elizabeth’s look.
“The word of a mere girl over my own?” bellowed the merchant. The room fell still as the men turned their attention to the three newcomers.
“Master Black, is there a problem?” Mistress Ford came up to the group, her arms folded across her ample chest.
“I gave your girl a shilling a while back and here she is denying it!” He was a short man with bull-like shoulders and chest and he drew himself up to his full height.
“Ma’am, he owes three pennies yet,” Elizabeth replied softly, her head bowed.
Mistress Ford looked over at Robin. “Well?”
“Elizabeth has a sharp eye and a good head about her,” Robin replied uneasily. “If she says he owes three pennies, I’d believe it.”
Mistress Ford smiled. “Nor would I believe your word so quickly, Master Black. You’ve bullied my girls before. Kindly pay up your three pennies or I’ll have my man here escort you out.”
The man dug into his filthy breeches and pulled out a small pouch, and laboriously fished out the three coins. Grumbling, he stalked away from the common room and went upstairs to his sleeping chamber.
Robin suddenly realized she’d been holding her breath and let it out. There was the rumble of good-natured chuckling as the men turned back to their drinks and their conversations. Two got a little boisterous and pawed at Elizabeth. She evaded them with the weariness of long practice until Dean noticed what was going on and one by one tossed the men out to the bawdy cheers of the others. Robin made a mental note of the two’s appearances. She had a feeling they were regulars.
It was late when Dean and Robin fell into the makeshift beds Elizabeth had made up in the loft. She had her cot in the kitchen.
“Robin?” Dean asked quietly.
“Yeah?” Robin curled onto her side away from her brother.
“When are we going home?”
“When we’re certain Elizabeth is firmly established here and has some sort of future.”
“She’s not coming back with us?”
“The whole reason we came was to leave her.”
“Because she’ll be happier here.”
There was a short silence.
“We can’t leave her,” Dean said finally.
“Do you want to stay and grow old and die here?” Robin snapped.
“Well, there you have it. Now, go to sleep. We have to get up at dawn.”
“And no complaining, either.”
Robin pulled the thin blanket around her shoulders. She had to admit, she wasn’t all that keen on leaving Elizabeth herself. But staying. There was so much to learn that she hadn’t thought about. How would she and Dean ever find a way to fit in?